If we are to believe some of its proponents, Measure B – the hotel limitation measure that was narrowly defeated in a November special election – was merely round-one in an emerging battle over the soul of Sonoma, which is currently caught in a tug-of-war between the forces of greed and development and the protectors of our city’s historic, small-town values.
Round-two, some people believe, will be the parallel issue of proliferating wine tasting rooms, of which roughly 30 are now scattered on and around the Plaza.\
Those dens of great and, some say, insufficiently regulated wine consumption, represent a backward slide into a kind of Wine Country Disneyland, in which fantasy replaces reality and tourists displace citizens until the Sonoma we all love disappears in an alcoholic haze.
Among the indicators of that dire and imminent future, some claim, are the high rents tasting rooms pay for Plaza privileges, thus driving out more meaningful, locally-owned, retail businesses that can’t afford the ever-escalating monthly tariff.
That, and the besotted influence of an economy fueled almost exclusively by alcohol, appears to threaten, some seem to think, the ambient lifestyle many move here to enjoy.
There’s no question these anxieties are real, but are they realistic? Are they based on quantifiable fact or just existential angst?
That’s a question we intend to explore, and we’d like to invite the help of our readers in making better sense of the tasting room trauma some perceive is strangling the Plaza.
More specifically, what are the tangible impacts of proliferating tasting rooms? How have they negatively (or positively) changed the experience of shopping, dining, exploring or simply hanging out in the Plaza?
Is there tangible evidence that tasting rooms have driven Plaza rental rates beyond the reach of potential retail enterprises? Or have tasting rooms simply filled the retail void caused by rents already out of reach?
Do tasting rooms draw an unpleasant clientele? Is there an increase in boorish behavior? Are more people drunk in public or on the streets of Sonoma as a product of tasting rooms?
Is the underlying issue traffic? Are tasting room clientele mostly out-of-town tourists who clog our streets and fill our parking spaces?
And what about the tasting room aesthetic? Are tasting rooms architecturally ugly? Do they demean the design standards of our mission-centric city?
Or, perhaps more fundamentally, do tasting rooms symbolize a broader and deeper concern over the sustainability of a wine-and-tourism-based economy and culture? And if so, what are the alternatives?
Underlying all these questions, and no doubt others, is the issue of who cares and how much.
The Measure B vote is the closest thing we have to a recent citywide poll, but it’s unclear what it tells us because only 61 percent of registered voters cast ballots and more than 25 percent of Sonoma’s eligible population isn’t even registered.
That means about 21 percent of the eligible population voted for the measure and close to 23 percent voted against it. Those aren’t conclusive statistics in any direction.