When it comes to drinking fine wine, the value at Sonoma tasting rooms isn’t bad.
True, a taster can spend exorbitant amounts: Opus-1, in Napa, charges $50 for a single ounce. But at the tasting room of Eric K. James Vineyards, a small local winery with a tiny space just off the Plaza in downtown Sonoma, tasters can try six one-ounce servings for $10 – servings that come with elaborate descriptions of the wines being poured.
It’s not a big moneymaker for company owner, winemaker and Sonoma resident Robert O’Maoilriain, who described his tasting room as “a long-term marketing plan, not a profit center.”
Only a few dozen people could fit into the space he rents, located a short amble from the northeast corner of the Plaza. The room, painted purple, with white picnic tables, corrugated tin siding and shelves stacked with wine, was previously used for cold storage by Mary’s Pizza.
But it’s his hope that visitors to the tasting room – such as the couple from Texas, in town to visit their son and enjoy some of Wine Country’s best – will become fans of Eric K. James and, ideally, spend more money over time.
“My revenue centers are case sales and wine clubs,” said O’Maoilriain, who ships about 1,500 cases a year to customers all over the country. Besides that, “I only sell to restaurants around the Plaza.”
These are boutique, and intensely local, wines he’s pouring: A chardonnay was grown “five minutes south of the Plaza.” A syrah was grown “on sandy soil five minutes west of here, by the golf course.” The amusingly named 401K Cabernet was grown “about five minutes southeast of here on the Valley floor.” The entire experience, he says, is as Sonoma as it gets.
For O’Maoilriain, something special is happening in Sonoma’s downtown. Long-vacant retail spaces are being rented again, more people are walking the Plaza, and things are livelier. And tasting rooms, he says, are a big reason why.
But others take a less positive view of tasting rooms, expressing dismay over their sheer numbers. By some counts, there are 30 such places within a block of the Plaza, although the city identifies just 23 wine tasting rooms within its “Plaza retail overlay zone,” with 20 of them purely for wine tasting and three others a mix of wine tasting and retail. “Together, these 23 tasting rooms and wine bars represent 17 percent of the ground-floor businesses within the zone,” the city states.
“We’ve always had tasting rooms. I think the issue was too many,” said Sonoma Councilmember Ken Brown.
In January, the city’s Planning Commission sent recommendations to the council on regulating these places, “but none of their recommendations contain anything about limitations on the number of tasting rooms,” said Larry Barnett, a Sonoma resident spearheading a movement to contain them – because, he says, they are turning Sonoma into a city for tourists rather than locals.
The recommendations did include a limit on the hours of tasting rooms (in Sonoma, most close by 7 p.m. in the winter months and 9 p.m. in the summer months). They would also put a cap on promotional events at tasting rooms, and the commission recommended that a tasting room occupying part of a larger business can only take up a third or less of the space, and be no larger than 1,000 square feet. Those rules have not yet been ratified by the City Council.