No Dining, No Wine-ing: Napa Winery Sues California Over ‘Unfair’ Reopening Rules

While wineries across California can reopen if they offer dine-in meals to guests, a 1990 ordinance bars Napa County wineries from selling food in tasting rooms. Now one prestigious vintner has sued the state claiming unfair treatment.

(Cristina Toner photo for Courthouse News)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California’s reopening measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have placed unfair restrictions on numerous wineries in the state, according to a federal lawsuit by one of Napa Valley’s most prestigious vintners.

The complaint, filed Thursday in the Northern District of California by Caymus Vineyards, names Governor Gavin Newsom and state Public Health Officer Sonia Angell. According to the complaint, the family-run Caymus is “one of the most celebrated winemakers in California” and a leader in the state’s $40 billion wine industry, best known for its “special selection” cabernet sauvignon, “the only wine ever honored twice as Wine Spectator’s ‘Wine of the Year.’”

The winemaker says California, as part of its efforts to reopen the state in a series of phases, has adopted reopening guidelines that are unfair to some wineries in the state.

Currently California is in stage two of its reopening plan — a phase in which clothing stores, bookstores, and even some barber shops and hair salons in certain areas are among several businesses allowed to open their doors to the public once more.

Included in these new reopening guidelines is an expanded scope of restaurants that can reopen, with many California restaurants now able to offer traditional dine-in experiences.

But Caymus claims the same allowance has not been equally extended to some California wineries. The winemaker claims California has issued an arbitrary order that wineries and establishments like them must remain closed if they do not offer sit-down dining.

Caymus says the order’s language on this subject is quite clear.

“Brewpubs, breweries, bars, pubs, craft distilleries, and wineries should remain closed until those establishments are allowed to resume modified or full operation unless they are offering sit-down, dine-in meals. Alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal,” the May 12 order states, according to the complaint.

Caymus says this restriction means many wineries are being treated unequally as compared with other business establishments and restaurants.

The winery says this is particularly unfair given that many wineries cannot legally offer meals even if they wanted to. Under the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance, all Napa wineries are barred from offering any kind of food service. That leaves Caymus and other Napa wineries with no option but to remain shuttered.

California officials have a duty to enforce and carry out these reopening orders in a way that similar businesses are treated with similar fairness — a duty that has not been satisfied in this instance, Caymus says. 

“As applied to Caymus, and over 400 other wineries with facilities in Napa County, the governor’s and state public health officer’s orders fail to do so,” the winery says in its complaint. “Run-of-the-mill retailers like toy stores may reopen. Restaurants offering indoor food service may reopen. Wineries that provide “sit-down, dine-in meals” may reopen. But wineries dedicated to wine tasting, like Caymus, may not.”

Black Stallion Winery in California’s Napa Valley. (Anthony Germain photo for Courthouse News)

Caymus claims this treatment is unsupported for several reasons. The winery notes other states such as North Carolina and Oregon have already taken steps to reopen wineries and tasting rooms that are adhering to the same health guidelines as restaurants.

The winery also claims that businesses like it are actually well equipped to practice proper social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most wineries have outdoor spaces where it is easier to keep people apart, their products come largely prepackaged and many wineries operate on a reservation system to keep crowd sizes to a minimum.

These are natural advantages that a winery has at its disposal during a health crisis, Caymus claims, and there is no sound reason why they should not be able to exercise those advantages at this time.

The winery also makes clear it is not attempting to back away from the state’s Covid-19 health guidelines. Caymus says it is supportive of the guidelines — and would like the opportunity to practice them.

“Caymus does not seek to insulate itself or its fellow wineries from the state’s general public health guidelines,” the winery says in its complaint. “To the contrary, Caymus supports those guidelines and seeks to incorporate them into its business. Defendants cannot offer a good reason for failing to trust wineries to follow health guidelines in their indoor and outdoor tasting areas, even while they trust toy stores, restaurants, and florists to do the same.”

Caymus wants the court to bar California from excluding tasting rooms and outdoor tasting areas at Caymus and other wineries from its reopening orders.

Thomas Harvey, Caymus’ attorney, says the case is ultimately about equal treatment.

“Caymus supports the state’s effort to keep Californians safe,” Harvey said in an email. “But as California reopens, Caymus should be treated the same as similar businesses. Restaurants, retail and wineries that offer dine-in meals are permitted to reopen. The current order punishes Caymus and other Napa wineries because — unlike neighboring wineries in Sonoma — they are not allowed to offer dine-in meals. There’s no rational basis for that distinction. If anything, the health order has it backwards.”

Harvey said the issue is simple and one that can be easily repaired.

“This is a common-sense issue, one that the state can resolve easily by revising the Phase 2 order to include all wineries,” Harvey said.

Representatives for the California officials named as defendants did not immediately respond to request for comment by press time.

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