WOODINVILLE − The Matthews Winery just outside Woodinville advertises itself as a welcoming place to enjoy a glass of rosé or merlot in a unique setting. Customers of the family-owned business sit with their wine and gaze across the street to the farmland in the Sammamish Valley.
Save for the cars passing by, it would be easy for guests to forget that they’re only 30 minutes from Seattle.
“We are presenting that country feel,” said Diane Otis, who became full-time owner of Matthews with husband Cliff Otis in 2012. “Rather than going to a warehouse, people love the setting here.”
The Matthews owners say the setting is not only an asset to its business, they say it also benefits and showcases the larger rural economy. But critics, including some owners of the farms that help create the bucolic surroundings, say Matthews and the other wineries, tasting rooms and breweries that operate in unincorporated King County threaten tourism and the environment.
Woodinville has long been known as the hub for oenophiles who want to sample pours from throughout Washington, which is second only to California in wine production. But some businesses have set up outside the city limits in a gray area with zoning laws that were often not enforced by the county.
For years, the question of what to do about the wineries and tasting rooms that have set up shop outside Woodinville has split wine country and ignited debate over the future of the neighboring Sammamish Valley. It’s generated strong concern from an involved citizen group, some Sammamish Valley farmers and the Woodinville City Council, whose members passed a resolution last year supporting stronger code enforcement in unincorporated areas.
Both sides have similar goals: Highlight the area’s thriving wine tourism industry and preserve the Sammamish Valley.
“Everybody wants it (the Sammamish Valley) to succeed,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci said. “But we have different ideas of what success looks like.”
The council is considering an ordinance aimed at fixing the problem.
The proposed ordinance would update regulations for how the county defines a brewery, distillery or winery operating in unincorporated King County, where and when they can operate and put parameters on building sizes, parking and number of events.
It would also let remote tasting rooms, which sell their product at one site but have their production facilities somewhere else, operate in certain areas of the county as part of a three-year pilot program. Those areas would be on rural-zoned land outside Woodinville, in Fall City and on Vashon Island.
The ordinance was sent back to committee last month, delaying any action for at least a few months.
Matthews is one of about 50 wineries, breweries or remote tasting rooms in unincorporated King County. They operate on land that’s been zoned for rural or agricultural uses, under regulations last updated in 2003. Since then, the region’s population — and wine industry — have boomed, and county officials acknowledge there was little oversight when businesses set up in areas throughout King County where they technically weren’t allowed.
In 2015, several of the wineries and tasting rooms, including Matthews, were cited by the county for operating on rural- or agricultural-zoned land. Cliff Otis said he had no idea there were land-use issues when he bought the business. A year later, several of the tasting rooms signed a settlement agreement with the county to allow them to operate until the county came up with revised regulations. They remain under that settlement agreement.
Woodinville is home to about 130 wineries, tasting rooms, microbreweries, distilleries and cideries that attract nearly 800,000 visitors each year. But city officials believe that a lack of enforcement on the businesses operating outside city limits puts them at a competitive advantage over the ones within the city, said Alex Herzog, assistant to the Woodinville city manager.
A portion of the Sammamish Valley that sits alongside Woodinville is a designated Agricultural Production District, which means it’s protected farmland. Some of the tasting rooms are along the edge of the valley, in an area designated as a buffer between agricultural land and residential neighborhoods.
One is Castillo de Feliciana, which sells wines grown on a 66-acre estate south of Walla Walla. Like many other tasting rooms, the grapes are grown in Eastern Washington and the wine is sold across the mountains. About 75 percent of Castillo de Feliciana’s sales come from its Woodinville tasting room, said project manager Deloa Dalby.
The tasting room has “deep agricultural roots,” Dalby said. They don’t want the agricultural district across the street to change.
Within the valley sits Eunomia Farms, where Andrew Ely grows peas, tomatoes, kale, radishes and other produce on an acre. He says he has issues with drainage on his farm and worries about an increase in sewage and runoff that could flow into the farmland from the businesses across the street.
He also worries that the ordinance would bring more development to the Sammamish Valley.
“The question is, which direction do you want the Sammamish Valley to go? ” Ely said. “The Kent Valley is entirely gone, the Green River Valley in Auburn, that whole area has seen a transformation. We know the pathway for when you open rural and agricultural land to commercialization.”
King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, whose district includes a portion of Woodinville, said no one wants to see development of the agricultural district. However, she thinks that farms can benefit from the tasting rooms in rural areas.
“There are people who are enjoying these establishments on Friday or Saturday night, and they see these beautiful farms and decide ‘I am going to go buy something there,’ ” she said. “It’s a good symbiotic relationship.”
Ordinance opponents have suggested that the tasting rooms simply move their operations to the Woodinville urban area, joining dozens of other similar businesses. But owners say it’s not that easy.
“My farm can’t operate on a cement pad, but these tasting rooms can operate in any capacity, in any location,” Ely said.
Other critics like Serena Glover, founder of Friends of Sammamish Valley, call them “illegally operating bars,” because “they are drinking places, and they are not legal in rural areas.”
Matthews owner Cliff Otis disputes that description.
“There’s not one single thing we are doing that’s illegal,” he said, and noted that, unlike a bar with spirits and beer, they sell only their own wines.
The Otises acknowledge there have been missteps in the past, like an end-of-summer party in September 2017 that was attended by about 1,500 people. The crowd caused a traffic jam and many parked their cars across the street on protected farmland. The owners have since decided to relocate the party to a Snohomish farm.
“We listened, we heard, we changed,” said son Bryan Otis, national sales and marketing director for Matthews Winery. “We want to be good neighbors.”