NAPA, CA – In one of Napa Valley’s most affluent enclaves, a familiar tension has flared up between a prestigious winery and its neighbors.

Staglin Family Vineyard wants to be able to host more visitors for wine tastings. Neighbors say that more tourists driving down their road would threaten their peaceful way of life.

It’s another version of a story that’s appeared over and over again in Napa Valley, where the wine industry has increasingly found itself in conflict with the valley’s residents over land-use and tourism issues. Many residents here see vineyards, wineries and hotels as destructive forces in their community, making their bucolic home a kind of Disneyland. Wine-industry players usually counter that they are responsible stewards of the land and that their businesses drive the county’s economy. They’ll point to research, for example, that shows the wine industry generates an annual economic impact of $9.4 billion locally, and is the county’s largest employer, followed by the tourism industry.

But unlike some of the major land-use controversies of recent years, like the building of large resorts or the removal of oak forests to make room for vineyard plantings, the Staglin Family proposal does not involve any new construction. Instead, it’s simply a matter of how many customers can visit the winery in person each day. Currently, Staglin, located at the end of Bella Oaks Lane in Rutherford, is allowed 10 customers per day. It has asked to be allowed 44, plus permission to hold more special events.

That increase “would change the very nature of the neighborhood,” said Gordon Atkinson, a lawyer representing a group of neighbors called the Rutherford Bench Alliance who oppose Staglin’s plan. Alliance members argue that more wine tastings and events would disturb neighboring homes, and that more cars on narrow Bella Oaks Lane could dangerously restrict evacuation routes if there were a wildfire.

The Staglins insist that this dramatic transformation will not come to pass. The Planning Commission agreed: In March, three years after the application process began, the commission approved a plan allowing 44 daily visitors (with some additional weekly limits depending on the season), plus 31 annual events of varying size. The Rutherford Bench Alliance appealed that decision; Napa County’s Board of Supervisors may settle it this summer.

The saga provides an instructive view into the defining issue of modern-day Napa Valley, where the values of agricultural preservation and economic prosperity are often seen as being at odds. Once an afterthought, tourism is now a cornerstone of the business model for high-end wineries like Staglin. But as wineries’ dependence on tourism grows, it seems, so does the opposition.Staglin Family Vineyard ranks in Napa’s uppermost echelon of wineries, with coveted bottles that cost up to $385. Soon after the winery came on the scene in 1986, its Cabernet Sauvignon became a sensation, earning rave reviews from critics and generating waiting lists of would-be buyers. The Staglin family is known for more than just wine, however: They are arguably the most prominent philanthropists in Napa, with a foundation and annual music festival that funds brain-health research. Its property is famous for its appearance in the 1998 remake of the film “The Parent Trap.”

It used to be that a 95-point score in the Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator magazine was all you needed to sell a bottle of Cabernet. But these days, someone buying a $385 bottle of wine often wants to see the winery for themselves, walk through the vineyard and meet the family that makes it, said President Shannon Staglin, whose parents, Garen and Shari, bought the Rutherford property in 1985.

“People are becoming more and more experience-driven, and they value experiences over ratings,” Staglin said. Customers, she said, don’t buy a bottle of Staglin Cabernet only because it tastes good: “They’re also buying it because of the culture surrounding it.”

That shift in wine consumers’ mindset helps explain why more people have been flocking to Napa Valley in recent years to go wine tasting.

Visitors to the region numbered 3.85 million in 2018, a 30% increase from 2012, and 81% of them came for the wineries, according to the tourism research firm Destination Analysts. For many wineries, the value of hosting people isn’t to collect a tasting fee; it’s to sell wine and cultivate loyal fans, who they hope will sign on as wine-club or mailing-list members. As restaurant wine sales have plummeted during the pandemic, those direct wine sales have become increasingly important to high-end wineries’ business models.

Staglin Family has always had a devoted following, Staglin said, but the last few years have brought a surge in reservation requests. With the 10-person daily limit, they’re turning a lot of potential and existing customers away.

“The demand has exceeded the limitations of our use permit,” she said. “When our initial use permit was issued, 22 years ago, that was speaking to a very different time.”

The Staglins have had difficulty with permitting before. Until the early 2000s, they made the wine off-site while they sought permission to build their own winemaking facility on their vineyard property. Eventually, to appease neighbors’ concerns about the scope of the construction, they decided to build the winery underground, in a cave.

When Garen and Shari Staglin hosted Christina Aguilera’s wedding at their home in 2005, some residents complained, according to the Napa Valley Register. Most Napa County wineries aren’t allowed to hold weddings. But because Aguilera was a friend and no money changed hands, the event was deemed legal.

But Staglin Family Vineyard’s neighbors have never galvanized quite like they have now, mobilizing to create their alliance and engaging legal counsel.