Most people, even most Californians, weren’t aware that Gavin Newsom was a partner in a group of wineries, restaurants, and resorts in California until just prior to Independence Day weekend. As we reported, it turns out (such a coincidence!) that all of his Plumpjack Group properties were in counties not affected by his enhanced Wuhan flu shutdown orders – meaning they had a distinct advantage over their competitors. After the news broke, the flagship winery unexpectedly closed down for the holiday weekend due to “logistical issues.”
Yes, the logistical issue that people don’t like duplicitous, self-serving politicians while they’re all suffering greatly.
Turns out that Gavin Newsom isn’t the only California official issuing health orders that benefit his business disproportionately.
Ventura County Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin has sole authority to issue health orders in his county and can issue orders that are more stringent than state requirements. Gov. Newsom issued an order effective July 1 shutting down indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, craft distilleries, breweries, and brewpubs. According to the state order, all restaurants could still offer outdoor dining, and breweries, brewpubs, craft distilleries, and wineries could operate outdoors as long as they offered sit-down, dine-in meals. Alcohol could only be sold in the same transaction as a meal.
The state order also allowed wineries, breweries, etc., that did not have a kitchen to open if they could contract with a vendor (i.e., food truck) to provide on-site, sit-down meals, as long as the food and the alcohol were rung up in the same transaction. Owners of such establishments weren’t happy with that overnight development since re-programming point of sale systems and figuring out the back-end accounting for tax purposes isn’t a quick task, but still jumped at the chance to be open in some fashion over a holiday weekend.
In Ventura County – not a major hotspot of coronavirus activity – Dr. Levin issued a more stringent order. His order considered any winery, brewery, etc., that did not have a restaurant permit to be a bar, and ordered them to close – even if they had a food truck on-site to sell meals – and explicitly warned that “Violation may constitute unfair competition.”
This was a huge blow to the majority of wineries and breweries/brewpubs in the area, which have historically used a rotation of food trucks to provide food to customers. As Chris Enegren, owner of Enegren Brewery in Moorpark, told RedState, “This allowed me to focus on what I was good at – being a brewer – while the chef in the food truck could focus on what he was good at. The customer wins.”
Enegren and others were forced to close over the lucrative 4th of July weekend while a number of area wineries were able to get around the order because, even though their sit-down meals were served by food trucks owned by unaffiliated vendors, they were permitted as restaurants to create things like charcuterie boards for their tasting rooms.
Enegren could have sunk thousands of dollars into a “show” kitchen and obtained a restaurant permit, then opened back up and still utilized the services of a food truck to provide sit-down, dine-in meals. But, he thought, if Dr. Levin’s purpose is to prevent virus transmission, his order does nothing to protect customers since business owners can just obtain the requisite permits and then it’s business as usual. Instead, he fought back. He spent hours calling his representatives from State Senate to County Supervisor to members of the Health Department. He went back and forth with Dr. Levin about how illogical the restrictions were.
Then, on July 15 he found out that Lucas Sellers Winery, which is located next door to Enegren Brewery and with whom he shares a patio AND A FOOD TRUCK – was cleared to reopen even though they weren’t selling food. Enegren learned of it when he was forwarded an email sent to Lucas Sellers Winery in which Dr. Levin told the winery owners they’d be able to open but that Mr. Enegren would not. (That email was reviewed by RedState, and a copy has been requested from the County through a Public Records Act request.)
Furious, Enegren shared the news with his customers on Instagram.
The caption to his Instagram post:
There has been some confusion so we’ll attempt to clarify this: You can order wine from the winery and sit outside in our shared patio…….but you can’t order beer because breweries are still closed…….
You really can’t make this up. But it gets better.
Furious that the winery could open but not his brewery, Enegren raised a stink with the county. Late Thursday, July 16, Levin entered a revised order. It was rumored that Levin would simply align the county’s standards with the state’s, but instead, it’s actually more lenient.
Section 1 of the Ventura County Health Officer’s order dated July 2, 2020, is hereby repealed and replaced with the following provision:
“1. Bars that serve food and wineries may open outdoor operations. All bars, pubs, brewpubs, breweries and other businesses licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on their premises must close indoor operations, but may open outdoor operations if they offer sit-down, outdoor dine-in meals. Alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal. Wineries and wine tasting rooms may open outdoor operations even if they do not offer sit-down, outdoor dine-in meals.
So, now wineries don’t have to offer sit-down, outdoor dine-in meals? Might that disproportionately favor Dr. Ralph Levin’s winery, End of the Road Winery in Ojai?
That’s right, Dr. Levin owns a winery in Ojai, an expensive, exclusive hamlet in Ventura County. He mentioned it in that email Chris Enegren received but didn’t name the winery. It wasn’t difficult to locate.
On the “About Us” page, the website reads:
In 1983, Robert Levin and his wife, Lisa Solinas travelled to the Italian island of Sardegna in to rediscover Lisa’s father’s family….Bob and Lisa’s Italian family said they needed to go back to California and start making wine… WHICH THEY DID – AND HAVE BEEN DOING EVER SINCE.
As the county health officer, with the power to enact health orders that affect businesses, Levin is required to file a Form 700 listing his assets so potential conflicts of interest can be detected. Ventura County’s Form 700s are not online, so at this time RedState is unable to determine whether he’s listed the winery or not. Regardless, he is prohibited from entering orders which unfairly favor his business.
From Ventura County’s memo to public officials (yes, Dr. Levin is a public official) regarding Form 700 and the Political Reform Act of 1974:
“No public official at any level of state or local government shall make, participate in making or in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.” (Gov. Code, $ 87100.)
Government-speak can be difficult to decipher because of the number of commas and clauses contained in each sentence, so here’s a simplified version:
“No public official at any level of state or local government shall make, [or] participate in making…a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.”
Violation of this provision potentially exposes one to criminal prosecution.
Whether or not Levin filed a Form 700, it’s clear that he should not have been involved in any decisions regarding wineries, breweries, brewpubs, or craft distilleries. In addition to the conflict of interest issues, his policies have been arbitrary and changed without reason.
Now the ball is in the court of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Even though this year’s chair is a Republican, the Board has not publicly challenged anything Levin has done. As RedState readers might remember, Levin has gone from extreme to extreme on the effectiveness of mask-wearing and the Board of Supervisors didn’t even question him. At one point he even suggested that people who tested positive for coronavirus would be forced to quarantine outside of their homes if they didn’t live alone, and only gave a weak retraction after Fox News highlighted his stupid comments.
In both instances the Board of Supervisors were mute.
As a Ventura County resident, I’m telling them – if you care about your residents and the hundreds of mom-and-pop business owners in the county, it’s time to speak.
When I spoke to Chris Enegren Thursday he said it was a struggle to stay positive every day, that every day he woke up trying to fight the desire to throw a chair through a window or that type of thing, because he’s watching the business he worked for more than a decade to build slowly be destroyed. The most maddening part for him, which most Californians can identify with, is that there is no logic to it. The restrictions are arbitrary, and the guidelines, restrictions, and requirements change without notice and without justification. As with the Ventura County gym owner I featured earlier, he’s done everything he’s been asked to do by the government, has done his best to comply with the health orders, and in the midst of a pandemic and potential economic ruin worked to ensure that his employees can keep their jobs and have money for their basic needs even if he has to suffer financially. And who’s been behind him? Certainly not a mute Board of Supervisors who are afraid to piss off Gavin Newsom or face the cancel culture. And that’s disgusting.
(Editor’s Notes: Chris Enegren is a well-known Republican and a member of the Moorpark City Council. The author of this piece is professionally acquainted with two current members of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.)