William Shakespeare once wrote, “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.”
And that is the crux of Sonoma’s issue du jour.
On the one hand, there are those who say wine is part of the Sonoma experience, and those who sell it in tasting rooms should be treated like any other retailer.
On the other hand, there are those who are wary of too many tasting rooms, believing too much of a good thing is an invitation to abuse.
Like Measure B, the recently defeated hotel limitation measure, this issue seems destined to become another wedge separating an already divided community. And while this time, large amounts of tax revenue are not at stake, character and image might be, depending on where you stand.
Members of Preserving Sonoma, the Measure B sponsors, have already taken a side.
“The next issue looming for Sonoma is the proliferation of Wine Bars,” says the home page of their website. “Nearly 30 already dot the downtown, and more are coming unless some limitations are placed on the total number. The Planning Commission has sent recommendations to the City Council, but has not recommended ANY limits on the total number. With hundreds of wineries waiting in the wings, Sonoma Plaza might end up an open-air wine-aisle supermarket,” the website states.
One of the group’s fears, according to members who have spoken at meetings of the Sonoma Planning Commission, is that tasting rooms will eventually drive up rents and push out other retailers.
“As competition increases, rents will go up,” said Larry Barnett, in a recent interview. “Some retailers will be forced out. Those with the deepest pockets will remain. Do we want to limit our economy to wineries?”
Barnett, who spearheaded Measure B, said he is in favor of numerical limitations, and perhaps even criteria, such as where the grapes that go in the wines are grown. “What’s to stop a guy (using) Fresno grapes from having a tasting room on the Plaza?”
A recent article on tasting rooms in the San Francisco Chronicle cited one Plaza area winery as using grapes “from Santa Barbara to the Willamette Valley” in their products.
But Peter Haywood, who’s been in the wine business in Sonoma for more than 35 years, says most of the small wineries with tasting rooms on the Plaza use Sonoma Valley grapes, with only a few from other regions of the county.
“About 90 percent of the wine sold on the Plaza comes from the Valley,” he said.
Haywood has a tasting room in “wine alley,” a tiny space in the Sonoma Court Shops. When he opened his tasting room two-and-a-half years ago, there were only about eight such businesses around the Plaza.
So why are there so many urban tasting rooms now? The answer might lie with the county and with the economy.
Think acres of vines, a building sitting in the center, public tours of the crush pad, the barrel room and, at the end, the tasting.