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'A very fine balance'

Wooldridge Creek Vineyards & Winery owner Kara Olmo is a vigorous proponent of land-use laws, stemming from the original 1973 Senate Bill 100 passed by Oregon voters.

Olmo sees the need for wineries to both collaborate and differentiate themselves within the framework and spirit of statutes hashed out between industry leaders and legislators.

As wineries step up food service, she fears encroaching commercialization may weaken farmland protection.

"It's a big issue," Olmo said. "If wineries are allowed to have full-service restaurants, then why not our neighbors? Why not the lavender farm? And why not the person with the farm stand? Why can't they have wedding venues and concert venues and full service restaurants?"

There is another path, said Olmo, who began producing wine near the Jackson/Josephine county line more than a dozen years ago along with her husband, Greg Paneitz, and vineyard owners Ted and Mary Warrick.

Olmo discovered there were resources on neighboring farmsteads that played to her academic and food production background. Following a circuitous and tortuous route that tested her resolve, Olmo said, she gained a permit for a creamery where she now produces cheese to pair with wine during tastings.

"There are 20 to 60 wineries here that are family-owned with beautiful views, we all have a winery dog and certainly the best wine. So how do you differentiate yourself so that you capture the highest share of that market and stand out in a way that's attractive and sustainable? The creamery for us was the answer."

Having made cheese for home consumption for several years, Olmo decided to give it a go.

"We worked with county planners for about four or five months to confirm that the idea of farming next to winery property and processing cheese or agricultural products made sense," Olmo said.

Not only are visitor numbers exceeding past levels, but customer feedback underscored Olmo's thinking.

"We're seeing that not only more and more visitors are selecting to come to the Applegate Valley, but because one of the wineries has an onsite creamery," she said.

She agrees with county oversight and permitting, considering individual parcels, impact on a neighborhood and the greater community. "If I was interested in running a full-service restaurant or wanted to be a concert venue or had 15 rooms open to customers and do an agri-tourism B&B, which is so common through Europe, I think the conditional use pathway is the way to do it."

The latest versions of legislation governing events at wineries were vetted by a multitude of groups, and Olmo believes the intent was obvious.

"The governor's office was extremely clear they would not allow for language that would allow for a permitted-use restaurant; they wanted winery restaurants to go through a conditional use pathway," Olmo said.

Even if consumers flock to sites where there's a better spread during their wine tasting, Olmo is hesitant to reverse philosophical course. She's not sure it's good for the future of farming if full-service restaurants checkerboarded the countryside.

"There is a very fine balance if you are going through a permitted use pathway of having some food available to provide for an experience that's safe, moderate and sustainable," she said.

Snacks and cheese plates are one thing, and presently encouraged.

"It's really a question of whether a full-service restaurant is pulling away from restaurants in our city centers that are paying the correct amount of taxes, keeping everyone employed," Olmo said. "Is it appropriate for Southern Oregon to have 30 restaurants out here when we don't have the employees for that? Would we want people driving past the restaurants in town to come work a waiter shift in the middle of the Applegate?"

A decade ago, a winery event might draw 100 people and maybe 35 cars, she said.

"This last Uncorked event we had 600 or 700 people, so there is an impact on our roads, turns and congestion; and people want to have bike tours here, too," Olmo said. "Some things that are so exciting and so fun and interesting when there are one or two, all of the sudden when there are 30, you have entirely different impact."