Sanguine over wine tasting

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.

The City Council and Planning Commission are scheduled to hold a joint study session on Monday, Feb. 24, to further address the myriad issues surrounding tasting rooms and give the public a chance to weigh in. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. No action will be taken Monday, but people on both sides of the debate are sure to be there.

According to an agenda for the special meeting that was released Thursday, “Wine and wine-making is part of the identity of Sonoma, and wine sales, including wine tasting establishments, have long been an element of the downtown community. However, in recent years, the city has seen a growing number of wineries establishing a wine-tasting presence in the Plaza, as well as tasting rooms not affiliated with a particular winery.”

One tasting room not affiliated with a particular winery is nestled in the back-left corner of the Sonoma Cheese Factory, which occupies a prime space on the northern edge of the Plaza. For $5, it offers three tastes of wines from no particular location – and has been doing so for at least 10 years, according to an employee there. It also plans to offer beer flights soon, and is able to sell beer or wine by the glass.

Healdsburg comparison

Barnett’s position – that tasting rooms are turning Sonoma into a place for outsiders – is sure to come up on Monday. So it’s worth testing that assumption in another Sonoma County town where tasting rooms have been proliferating for years: Healdsburg.

The similarities between the two towns are obvious. Both are undeniably quaint, with historic downtowns, bucolic surroundings and a legacy of wine production. Both have populations of a little over 10,000. And both have central plazas – although Healdsburg’s is considerably smaller and referred to by locals (though not universally) as a “square.”

And around both of those plazas are dozens of wine tasting rooms.

“People from the Bay Area want to escape and be somewhere where there’s sun,” said Paul Rea of Windsor Vineyards, explaining why tourists visit that winery’s tasting room. Sure enough, a young couple from San Jose dropped in a few minutes later.

At the Windsor Vineyards tasting room – which fills an airy retail space several times larger than O’Maoilriain’s – Rea will pour a flight of four different wines for $10. He’ll also describe the wines in detail, as O’Maoilriain did, revealing a wine list that is somewhat less locally sourced.

The mellow-tasting meritage is made from grapes grown around Sonoma County. But the cabernet came from Stags Leap District in Napa Valley.

The winery (founded by Rodney Strong, but later bought and made independent) originally had a tasting room in Tiberon, Rea said. But “There’s not many people going there for tasting,” while “Healdsburg was originally somewhere people were going for wine.” So the tasting room was moved to downtown Healdsburg three years ago.

A “Wine Walk” map for Healdsburg lists 38 tasting rooms near the city square, although 12 of those are clustered a few blocks away on Front Street. They are visible, and occupying large spaces – but they’re interspersed with high-end clothing stores, art galleries, a variety of eateries and other businesses.

“The tasting rooms don’t stand out to me any more in Sonoma than they do when I’m strolling around downtown Healdsburg,” said Healdsburg City Manager Marjie Pettus. “I didn’t get the sense that, oh my gosh, the place is overrun.”

Pettus acknowledged that, “Certainly we have seen an increase in the number of tasting rooms” of late. “But the vacancies have not been filled exclusively by tasting rooms. I think there’s been a mix, and whether or not it’s a healthy mix has been (a matter of) perception.”

Pettus said Healdsburg has had “a couple of conversations” about tasting rooms, citing “residents and business owners who have expressed concern that if we continue to allow tasting rooms, then we compromise the aesthetic and the unique character of the town.” But city leaders are letting the market decide.

“I can say that the ultimate decision made by the council was that demand will dictate, and that it was far healthier for the economy, and certainly for the aesthetic, to have a wine tasting room or a commercial space filled, versus a vacancy. And if the tasting rooms are not supported, if they’re not getting the customers … those things resolve themselves.”

Healdsburg does have “guidelines” in place that ostensibly limit the number of wine outlets, be they bars or tasting rooms, to two per block face. However, city leaders have leeway to allow more than that in specific cases.

Across Healdsburg’s square – where people strolled, couples frolicked and a little boy zipped about on a scooter – Ally Sather poured out a finger of malbec inside the Thumbprint Cellars tasting room. Sather, a Fetters Hot Springs resident who commutes to Healdsburg, said Thumbprint’s was the sixth tasting room to open on the square, taking over a former jewelry shop in 2004.

The room’s curvy bar and funky art make Thumbprint reminiscent of Sonoma’s smaller, more independent tasting rooms. Perhaps because Healdsburg is further along in the process – or maybe because the winery scene is different there – many of its tasting rooms are larger, tidier, and appear to represent bigger wineries. (Kendall-Jackson was said to have at least part ownership of six tasting rooms on Healdsburg’s square alone.) By contrast, Sonoma’s tasting rooms often seem like shoestring operations – what would be called “start-ups” in Silicon Valley parlance.

When it comes to wine tasting, both cities are eminently walkable, affordable and civilized. And in both places, tasters can learn all there is to know about the wines being poured.

“Tasting rooms have been around a long time,” Sather said, noting that a small family winery “didn’t have another way to market its product.” However, she said, the scene “has evolved,” and she believes the debate over tasting rooms is a worthy one for a city to have.

If so, then Sonoma vintners are ready. Danny Fay, of Envolve, an outspoken critic of Barnett’s efforts to curb tasting rooms, said that, “We have a ton more locals downtown now” thanks to their presence.

“The people that are making this racket are people that are afraid of change,” said Fay, who co-founded the winery five years ago with Mike Benziger and Ben Flajnik of “Bachelor” fame.

Envolve’s tasting room, located just south of the Plaza at the bottom of a walkway called Wine Alley, is larger than Eric K. James’, with a bar on the right and comfortable seating all around. Behind the bar, Benziger – a member of the well-known Sonoma Valley wine family – pours various wines while describing their origins.

The pinot came from “a tiny little farm called Lennox in the Russian River Valley” and features a “cherry nose and a long finish.” After that comes a “cool-climate syrah from Bennett Valley,” followed by a cabernet “from this really cool biodynamic farm called Puma Springs” – a 50-acre vineyard north of Healdsburg.

According to Benziger, “You get a better education” at tasting rooms than at a wine bar, where “they’re going to have a limited knowledge” about the wines being poured.

“It’s all about the experience around here,” he said.