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Treasury Wine Estates' plans to boost premium wine production at its Beringer plant in St. Helena lands in court

"Citizens for Responsible Winery Growth" claims an environmental review should have been conducted
by Kerana Todorov
August 28, 2017

 Treasury Wine Estates’ plans to boost premium wine production at its Beringer plant in St. Helena has landed in court.

A group named “Citizens for Responsible Winery Growth in St. Helena” alleges the city of St. Helena violated state environmental law and its own municipal code when it approved Beringer’s proposal earlier this year to decommission eight large-size tanks and replace them with 130 smaller-size tanks to produce high-end wines, according to the complaint.

Treasury Wine Estates Americas Co. wants to move all wine production from Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County to Beringer’s plant in St. Helena; it also plans to transfer production of all but the top-end labels from Beaulieu Vineyard’s winery in Rutherford to the St. Helena facility, according to the lawsuit. In addition, Treasury Wine Estates could also lease space to other wineries, according to the document.

Nearby residents complained at public hearings in April and in June they expected more traffic congestion, increased water usage at the plant and noise pollution.

In its complaint, Citizens for Responsible Winery Growth in St. Helena, whose membership was not disclosed, said an environmental review should have been conducted because the project creates “significant cumulative traffic, water and noise impacts.” The intersection at Pratt Avenue and Highway 29 near the plant is failing, according to the residents and the complaint.

The plaintiffs want the city to set aside its approval of the project, referred as “Beringer Icon III”, and conduct an environmental review of the plans under the California Environmental Quality Act. Very little information was provided during the approval process, they said.

The lawsuit also seeks an order to stop Treasury Wine Estates, Americas Co., from starting construction until a conditional use permit for the plant has been approved, according to the complaint. Copies of the Beringer plant’s 1974 conditional use permit are lost, according to the lawsuit filed Aug. 21 in Napa County Superior Court.

Brent Dodd, a spokesman for Treasury said on Wednesday in a statement “We hope to resolve the issue in a timely manner.”

“Treasury Wine Estates is changing the type of wines” made at its Beringer site in St. Helena “from commercial to luxury through the use of smaller format tanks, aligned with our broader corporate strategy,” he said in an email.

“This project is currently underway to decommission eight(8) large format wine fermentation tanks. Throughout this project, TWE has been in compliant with our existing production limitations, building codes and St. Helena’s Design and Review process,” according to the statement.

Four of the large-size tanks slated to be decommissioned store up to 153,200 gallons of wine each and the other four, 46,000 gallons. The large tanks are not fit for high-end luxury winemaking, representatives for Treasury Wine Estates/Beringer said at public hearings in April and in June.

“We are doing this because in order for our business to be competitive in the wine industry, we need to reinvest in this aging winery and we need to focus our efforts on luxury high-end winemaking,” Eric Gilliland, general manager at Beringer, told the St. Helena City Council in June.

Still, residents questioned why the project was being reviewed as a design review application with no traffic, water or noise studies.

City staff told the Planning Commission and the City Council a design review was appropriate because there was no proposed increase of production capacity.

The holding capacity of the 130 smaller tanks totals about 40,000 gallons less than the total volume of the eight large tanks slated to be decommissioned, they said. The plant can produce up 18,000 tons – or 4.3 million gallons of wine, according to the company.

Winery representatives told city officials the company stages truck traffic and push for full loads. They did not expect more truck trips after the switch.

The plant, which primarily relies on wells for water, also seeks to reduce its water usage, according to the company. The large tanks to be decommissioned can collect up to 800,000 gallons of rain water, Gilliland told the City Council. They will not be removed, according to the company.

The planning commission approved the Beringer application with a 3-0-1 vote; two commissioners voted for approval and a third voted absent after raising concerns over the process. Residents sought to overturn the decision to the City Council. But the council voted in June voted 3-2 against the appeal.

St. Helena Planning Director Noah Housh said on Wednesday he was not aware the lawsuit had been filed. However, he noted that Sutter Home had had an application similar to Beringer’s which was not opposed. That application, which was approved in September, included the decommissioning of four, 202,000- gallon tanks and the installation of 55 new wine storage tanks, 5,000 to 30,000 gallons each.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached to comment on their complaint.

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