Sonoma City Council to get tasting room rules

A modest set of tasting room regulations were unanimously approved by the Sonoma Planning Commission on Thursday.

After two-and-a-half hours of testimony and deliberation, the planning panel agreed to limit the hours of the majority of the tasting rooms, but declined to recommend any limits on their numbers.

The lone “no” vote came from Commissioner Robert Felder. “Let’s be realistic. As more and more tasting rooms open, tasting becomes bar-hopping. We should at least limit the hours of operation to those in a normal business environment,” he said.

Commissioners agreed to limit hours for general public access to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., but only from Nov. 1 through March 30. In deference to the tourist season, tasting rooms will be allowed to stay open until 9 p.m. the other months.

“Many small entrepreneurs are barely breaking even because they don’t make a lot of wine,” said Jon Parker, who spoke in favor of expanded summer hours. “Their main goal is to establish a following.”

Other regulations approved include:

• Tasting rooms that can go in “by right” will be limited to 1,000 square feet maximum.

• A business that occupies a part of another larger business can only take up 33 percent or less of the space (and must be 1,000 square feet or less).

• Promotional events will be limited to 26 a year, with only six in any one month.

• Two violations of an ABC license will trigger a conditional-use permit review.

All of these “suggested” regulations can be modified through the conditional-use permit process, which will also be needed if an existing, non-conforming use changes its ABC license type, or expands or intensifies its use.

The commission also attempted to differentiate between “tasting rooms, limited,” which cover most of the rooms in Sonoma, and “wine bar/tap room” (which will cover beer).

Most of the 29 tasting rooms in Sonoma have Type 2 ABC licenses and will fall under the “tasting room, limited” category. New wine bars/tap rooms that have a Type 42 license will still need a conditional use permit.

“A conditional-use permit does not mean denial,” said Commissioner Bill Willers. “It merely means the public gets to review the use.”

Under current city codes, tasting rooms are treated like any other retail use, and have been allowed in commercial spaces by right.

Parking requirements are the same – one for every 300 feet of space – and the rooms most close by 6 p.m.

While wine industry representatives contended that regulations were not needed, most commissioners believed something should be in place to encourage small business tasting rooms while discouraging large conglomerates from taking over prime spaces on the Plaza. One commissioner feared that events, if not limited, might overwhelm parking in the downtown.

Sam Coturri, who does not have a tasting room downtown, but is in the wine business, spoke against limits. “Our first goal is to convert visitors to members of our wine club,” he said, “so the contention that tasting rooms are bars is not valid. Second, if you limit the number of tasting rooms and events, you’re creating obstacles, and larger brands will push the small brands out. There will still be tasting rooms elsewhere and we will be putting people back into their cars.”

Peter Spann, also in the wine business, agreed. “Plaza tenants are paying high rents. We can’t. But a lot of empty spaces off the Plaza are now occupied by tasting rooms, and our profits are getting redistributed in the community.”

But others were disappointed that the number of tasting rooms was not addressed. Claudia Robin, representing Preserving Sonoma, the organization that sponsored the recent, narrowly defeated hotel limitation measure, read a letter from Larry Barnett, the group’s founder. It called for a curb on the number or tasting rooms, stating that without a numerical limitation the downtown risks losing retail stores. The suggested number was 30 which would allow all existing ones to remain.

Sonoma Valley resident Fred Allebach agreed with this position. “To me, the issue is too many wine facilities. How many more will be coming?”

The new regulations also address food and parking. In essence, the service of food to the general public would be quite limited, but more extensive food service would be an option for private events, such as occasional winemaker dinners. Private marketing and promotional events are allowed, but tasting rooms will not be able to rent to a third party.

Training requirements for staff actually handling the pours is not addressed in these regulations, and nothing supersedes any regulation imposed by the ABC license itself.

The regulations will now be sent to the City Council. Staff must still come up with ways to monitor the numbers of events each winery is allowed.