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The Reinvention of the Event-based Hospitality Industry in the Napa Valley

The Reinvention of the Event-based Hospitality Industry in the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley special events and wedding industry has suffered a huge setback due to the Napa County Board of Supervisors' recent vote to tighten restrictions on events held at wineries in the Napa Valley. On May 11, after nine months of meetings and deliberation, the Napa County Supervisors voted to prohibit certain types of winery events and tighten restrictions on others. Language regarding how a winery can market their wine now specifically states: “Examples of cultural and social events that are not permitted include weddings, wedding rehearsals, anniversary parties, and similar events where the education and development of consumers is subordinate to non-wine-related content.” In addition, one of the Supervisors suggested to the Hospitality and Tourism industry that they “reinvent your business” and “partner with venues that are in the city.” The city he referenced is San Francisco.


How could this have happened in a tourist mecca and one of the top sites for destination weddings and corporate events in the world? Simple. It’s called a Winery Definition Ordinance and within an agricultural preserve, such as Napa County, the County has the power to define what IS and IS NOT marketing of wine with regard to the agricultural lands the ordinance protects.

A struggling local economy paired with slow wine sales spurred a local group of hospitality professionals to propose changes to Napa County’s Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) in August of 2009. The group also saw the need to maintain a competitive edge in the global wine market--social events are a fantastic marketing tool to sell wine and create global ambassadors of the winery brands located in the Napa Valley. The background of the WDO dates back to 1989 when it was conceived by a group of local vintners and grape growers who continue to live and thrive in Napa Valley today because of skyrocketed prices for grapes and the perceived demand of wines from the Napa Valley. The intent of the WDO is to discourage commercial activities in Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve by dictating how a winery can do business. Winery operations are strictly laid out in the WDO and include restrictive language on how a winery can market their wine. Wineries are granted a certain number of permitted events based on the amount of land the winery owns, number of barrels produced, and other key factors. There are only a small handful of “grandfathered” wineries in the Napa Valley that can “legally” do weddings and other events.

In August 2009, during the height of economic downturn and recession, the hospitality group proposed a draft change to the ordinance that would have allowed a loosened definition of marketing events within the WDO. The proposal mandated that no increase in events occur thereby creating no impact on the Ag Preserve. In addition, the wineries had no obligation to change a thing and if they choose not to host any events at their winery, they were free to keep their business as usual. This group of professionals was insistent that any changes to the WDO make absolutely no impact on Napa Valley’s agricultural land. All that live here understand what a treasure it is, and what makes the Napa Valley a unique and special place to visit. The group also encouraged a two-year trial period--a sunset clause as a temporary boost to the local economy to see if the changes were good for the local area.

Despite the fact that the visitor-serving industry is the No. 2 industry in the Napa Valley, they were never publically given a seat at the table in nine months of discussions. During every Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors meeting, dozens of small businesses would stand up and speak to the supervisors about the economic impact of the recession on their businesses. These were small wineries, event planners, caterers, larger winery representatives, bed-and-breakfast owners, rental companies, floral designers, photographers, etc. All facets of the event hospitality industry made their comments known to the Board but were not invited to the meetings when drafting the revised ordinance and subsequent resolution. The Board of Supervisors relied upon the “Four Industry Groups”: the Napa Valley Vintners Association, The Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa Valley Winegrowers and the Napa Valley Farm Bureau--all very powerful lobbying forces in the Napa Valley and have their own vested interest in the WDOppfor their decision. The end result: further limitations to the already restrictive Winery Definition Ordinance.


In the spirit of entrepreneurship and “reinventing” themselves, this May, a group of event and wedding professionals decided to create a unified voice for the events-based hospitality industry by creating a marketing association to support the Napa & Sonoma Wine Countries. Sasha Souza, of Sasha Souza Events, is an internationally known event designer and consistently hears bad PR about the Napa Valley when couples call looking for a wedding location. The myths create an unwelcome atmosphere for potential couples looking to have a Napa or Sonoma Valley Wine Country wedding. Jenne Hohn, of Jenne Hohn Events, spearheaded the proposed WDO changes alongside her associates in the industry. As co-founder of ISES Napa-Sonoma, Hohn is familiar with starting an association. Both Souza and Hohn look forward to creating a marketing-specific organization that will unify and support the Napa-Sonoma hospitality industry and dispel the bad PR that surrounds events in the Napa Valley.

Wine Country Event & Wedding Professionals is set to launch in the coming weeks. This association, spearheaded by Sasha Souza Events and Jenne Hohn Events, will create a marketing-specific organization that will unify and support the Napa-Sonoma hospitality industry and dispel the bad PR that surrounds events in the Wine Country. The association will market directly to brides and dispel the myths that you cannot have a successful Wine Country wedding. The association will serve to support the exemplary event and wedding industry professionals in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

If you are a Napa or Sonoma County based event or hospitality professional, or a client looking for help with your Wine Country event, please contact us for more information by emailing [email protected] or check our website, which will be functioning in a few weeks.

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