Too much tasting?
We are, it appears, in the midst of a conversation – perhaps in some quarters a lament – over the proliferation of Plaza tasting rooms. It’s a legitimate concern, and an inevitable one, as the city and the Valley probe the logical limits and the carrying capacity of our social and ecological environment.
But let’s put the conversation in appropriate context.
In any given recent year, about 60,000 people stop by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau facilities on the Plaza or at Cornerstone Gardens. That’s an average of 164 people every day of the year.
But that’s just the tip of the visitor iceberg. It is estimated that close to 1 million visitors come to Sonoma each year, and they don’t come looking for haute couture or big game hunting or Broadway shows – they come for the wine, the food it’s paired with and the stunning scenery in which it is set.
A million visitors is only a couple hundred thousand less than annually visit the entire island of Kauai. And if you’ve been to Kauai, you know that the island has a very clear sense of its economic future, and seems to be managing that future with considerable success. No one we’ve met in Kauai expects the island to revert to its unspoiled, pre-colonial innocence, as much as some may dream of the past. The engine that keeps the island’s economy running is tourism, and that’s our engine as well.
And while the Kauai of today is far more developed than the Kauai of 50 years ago, in our experience it is far from despoiled and the permanent population of some 60,000 people appear to have a firm hold on the traditional values they cherish, despite the annual onslaught of 1.2 million tourists.
There is a balance, of course, between reasonable, sustainable development and preservation of the qualities that draw people here to begin with. And we will always be arguing about what that balance is and should be. The city has a policy that permits the consumption of alcohol on the Plaza between 11:30 a.m. and dusk. The policy was implemented to foster the sale and responsible consumption of wine in a relaxed outdoor environment. But one offshoot of that policy has been the congregation of transient alcoholics who regularly occupy parts of the Plaza and, by their sometimes-threatening presence, co-opt the space from visitors and locals alike.
We have yet to hear anyone suggest the Plaza wine policy be rescinded.
With 24 tasting rooms directly on or adjacent to the Plaza, 18.6 percent of the 135 Plaza-related retail businesses are wine tasting rooms. That does not strike us as excessive, and the presence of those establishments has eased considerably the economic drain of numerous, formerly-empty storefronts.
There is a goose-and-the-golden-egg quality to the tasting room dilemma. In the Aesop’s fable, the golden-egg-laying goose is slaughtered in an ignorant attempt to advance short-term gain. In the context of the Plaza, the lesson could be that too many tasting rooms will spoil the environment that makes the Plaza such a special place to visit. Or it could be that too strict limits on tasting rooms would kill the opportunity creating a less hospitable environment for those same visitors. Or it could be both those scenarios, or neither.
Either way, as we explore the issue, level heads and caution are in order.