Caymus Winery Owner Chuck Wagner Sues California over Tasting Room Closures

Napa veteran calls it unfair that wineries serving food can open tasting rooms while others—including all Napa wineries—cannot

Article By : Mitch Frank from Wine Spectator

Caymus Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s best-known wineries, has filed a lawsuit against California’s governor and public health officer, alleging that the state’s reopening plan is treating winery tasting rooms inequitably. Chuck Wagner, the winery’s proprietor, is calling on a federal court to strike down the measure that has allowed some tasting rooms to open while others remain closed.

“The orders permit the reopening of winery tasting rooms if, and only if, they also provide ‘sit-down, dine-in meals,'” the complaint alleges. “The orders provide no explanation for this requirement. Any winery that does not—or, under local ordinances, cannot—provide such meals may not reopen. The governor and the state public health officer have an obligation to promulgate orders that treat like businesses in a like manner.”

Ironically, both parties in the suit are vintners. Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom is a co-owner of the PlumpJack Group, which includes four Napa wineries. Wagner is the longtime proprietor of Caymus, which he co-founded with his father, Charlie, when he was just out of high school. Today, he and two of his children own multiple California wineries.

“Napa Valley is being treated differently than other parts of the state,” Wagner told Wine Spectator. “It’s mainly the inequity of how we’re being treated that bothers me. We’ve reached out to the state for answers and cannot get them.”

Gov. Newsom declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The beef comes down to how California is allowing winery tasting rooms, shuttered since March, to gradually reopen. The state is in Stage 2, which allows restaurants and some retail businesses to resume partial operations. Winery tasting rooms are not included.

However, several counties that meet certain health criteria have applied for waivers. These have allowed wineries that also offer food service to resume tastings as long as guests are outdoors and properly spaced. Some wineries in Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and El Dorado began tastings in recent days.

But Napa County does not allow wineries to offer full-meal service. Thus, Napa wineries have been left out for now.

Wagner isn’t the only one to complain. Winery owners in regions that have permitted limited tasting room service have complained that the rules favor bigger wineries who already offered food service or those with the resources to partner with area restaurants.

Wagner says the shutdowns, along with the sharp drop in sales to restaurants around the country, have hurt business, but he says he’s one of the fortunate ones who can weather tough times. He worries for smaller wineries. He has also kept all his employees on full-time pay, even though the hospitality staff is currently idle. “We’re on the lucky side,” he said. “Yes, we’ve had losses like so many people. Our tasting room is a sizable amount of our business, and we’ve lost our restaurant accounts, which is about 25 percent of our business.”

Wagner adds that he doesn’t object to the state taking precautions. “We take this seriously. We will abide by all the health criteria set out by the state and county.”

He hopes the court will strike down the rule. It’s also possible that the state may change the rules soon, as long as there is not a spike in COVID-19 cases.

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