Wine tasting runs amok?
Or, do tasting rooms revive Plaza business?
Danny Fay of Envolve Winery at his Plaza tasting room
With 24 wine tasting rooms on or immediately adjacent to it, the Sonoma Plaza is fast becoming an alcohol-besotted tourist trap, or, as one critic put it, “a Wine Country theme park,” so crowded with outsiders and drunks that local residents no longer feel comfortable there.
That’s one point of view.
Or, the proliferation of Plaza tasting rooms has created a rich, appealing and increasingly profitable business model, filling once-vacant storefronts and bringing new life to the Plaza, drawing crowds of locals along with the tourists, all of whom enjoy the amenities of sipping wide varieties of wine in comfortable surroundings in a historic setting.
Determining which perspective is more accurate, and what – if anything – to do about it, has occupied the time of both the Planning Commission, Dec. 13, and the City Council, March 18.
And while the conversation is far from over, the two schools of thought have drawn clear lines.
Former mayor Larry Barnett told the council on Monday, “People I talk to don’t like it. They avoid the Plaza.” Barnett complained that there is “no upper limit” on the number of tasting rooms, that some of them have “morphed” into wine bars where people sit drinking full glasses of wine.
But Scott Peterson, with Rumpus Cellars on First Street East, argued, “I don’t think we have a problem. We are heavily regulated, and bonded by ABC (the State Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control), we’re open noon to 7 p.m. This town is founded on wine. I’m a part of that, I intend to persevere.”
Before the council was a set of regulation options that included, 1) setting standard operating requirements; 2) requiring use permit review; and 3) some combination of both.
Barnett has urged an actual moratorium on more tasting rooms until some further regulation is in place.
Of nine public speakers, four opposed further regulation and one – Gina Cuclis – proposed greater efforts to train tasting room staff in responsible beverage serving.
But not everyone agreed that tasting rooms are significantly responsible for the over-consumption of alcohol.
Danny Fay of Envolve Winery, which has a Plaza tasting room, said he already holds ABC’s responsible serving classes for his staff, and he encourages “limited” pours. “We don’t like drunks in our tasting rooms,” he insisted. “You consume more wine in a restaurant than you do in a tasting room.”
Councilmember Steve Barbose called it “a tricky issue” and said his emails are running “20-to-one that we have a problem.”
Councilmember David Cook, who owns a vineyard management business, countered that “I’m not getting the 20-to-one,” and insisted, “I do not feel we have a problem. Business can regulate itself. If wine tasting rooms become too many, they’ll become fewer.”
Mayor Ken Brown observed that, “I certainly have not lost any interest in being on the Plaza.” And, he pointed out, anyone “can buy (their) own bottle of wine and drink it there.”
Barbose responded that he would “really like to see the level of dialog on this engaged in some critical thinking. …God knows I love a good glass of wine, (but) how would you feel if we had twice as many tasting rooms as we do now?”
Barbose suggested there is good reason to discus some form of increased regulation, although he said he wouldn’t propose a moratorium.
In the end, City Manager Carol Giovanatto suggested a postponement of the discussion to a later date when the absent Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse could be present, perhaps in the context of a study session with the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.
That was agreed to and no further action was taken.