The L.A. County health department no longer has the local wine industry over a barrel.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday freed L.A. County winemakers from rules under which they had been regulated like any other food-processing plant – creating what the winemakers said were unnecessary and burdensome costs that strangled the industry in the county while it booms elsewhere in the state.
“Somehow (wineries) ended up in the same category as food processors, and that created a whole lot of requirements for the wine industry that had nothing to do with what they do, so this changes that,’’ said Rosalind Wayman, the Santa Clarita-based senior deputy for Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.
The supervisors voted 3-0, with two members absent, to amend the county code to exempt wineries, distilleries and canneries from being classified with food-processing establishments, putting them in the same category as breweries — which are regulated by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control under guidelines more specific to their products.
There are several wineries in the Santa Clarita area, including Alonso Family Vineyards, the Pulchella Winery in Valencia and the Reyes Winery in Agua Dulce.
They have set up shop and survived in L.A. County despite what they say have been costs and regulations that don’t apply to the production of wine.
Tuesday’s move by the supervisors will free them of some of those costs, such as permit fees – though not from the start-up costs they have already borne.
The supervisors’ action also could spur growth in the L.A. County wine industry, making the county competitive with the likes of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the southern part of the state.
“It cost us over $100,000 more than it should have to open the winery just to meet health department standards that were redundant and unnecessary,” Steve Lemley of Pulchella Winery told the Santa Clarita Business Journal in April.
“Yet, some of the largest brewery plants in Los Angeles County since the 1960s have been exempt from the same regulations that strangle us.’’
Among the health-department-mandated costs Lemley cited as unnecessary for his start-up were for pricy plan checks, the installation of air curtains, concrete-floor sealants and drainage, special tiles, and a janitorial sink – all specific to food processing but not to winemaking, he said.
“They’re right – it was a terrible burden,’’ Fred Leaf, senior policy adviser to Antonovich, said of the old regulations.
“(Winemakers) were having to comply with food-establishment regulations, which wasn’t consistent with the processes and the management of that particular industry, and they wanted to right that.”
As a result of those old regulations, Lemley told the Business Journal, “We are one of the few wineries in Los Angeles County.”
Winemakers point out that the newly relaxed regulations don’t pose a threat to public health because wine is not susceptible to the kinds of bacteria that cause food to spoil. They note that when wine goes bad, it simply turns to vinegar.
The supervisors’ move came after a year-long conversation begun by the Alonso Vineyards with Antonovich. Eventually, other winemakers joined in, and the matter went to the health department for reconsideration.
Cynthia A. Harding, interim director of the L.A. Public Health Department, recommended to the supervisors that they take the action they did on Tuesday.
“Approving the recommendation will not preclude DPH from inspecting wineries, distilleries, or canneries on a complaint basis,’’ Harding wrote to the supervisors.
Freddie Agyin, the county’s environmental health services manager, indicated to the Business Journal in April that he was on board with the relaxed, more business-friendly rules.
“We considered everything that went into the making wine or beer and asked what the difference was,” he said. “We asked why a brewery was exempt and not a winemaking facility. We decided a winery should be no different.”
It should mean a rosy time ahead for the L.A. County wine industry, said Leaf.
“Any time we can reduce government regulation, it’s going to improve the growth of an industry,’’ he said. “This will certainly have that effect.”