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Tasting rooms: Too much of a good thing?

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.

This is the romance of Wine Country, from the visitor’s point-of-view, or the headache and bank-account squeeze, from the producer’s point-of-view.

The reality is that vineyard land is not cheap, and going through the winery permitting process in the county is lengthy, with no guaranteed outcome. Those who make it through have to invest in construction, wine production equipment, and labor. Then they have to engage salespeople to guarantee the product gets in stores and restaurants. And, with only three major brokers in the entire state, competition to get onto grocery and other store shelves is fierce, and may be impossible for the little guys.

Then someone built a better mousetrap.

Today, if you want to own a winery and have capital to invest, you can buy grapes, rent space in a warehouse to crush, ferment, bottle, and store your product, open a tasting room and voila – you’re in business. One such place is The Wine Foundry, on Eighth Street East, where all the services you need to go into the wine business are provided, including experts to help you do it. Or, you can go to the Internet and download books on how to get into the business yourself, without a big investment.

But once you buy your grapes, make your wine and get it ready for sale, you have to find a place to sell it.

“Wineries with a certain type of license can have tasting rooms where they produce their product,” said Haywood. “But many production sites don’t allow sales, or are not legally permitted to have sales, so the producers have to open tasting rooms elsewhere.”

“I was in the first situation for many years, with my own production site and tasting room. Now I produce in Kenwood and, although I have an allocated proprietorship designation, the owner of the site has his own tasting room there. So mine is in town,” he added.

And for those whose only option is a tasting room in town, the key to success is the public exposure.

“Small wineries rely on direct-to-consumer sales,” said Haywood. “But in order to get named parties, a retail location is required.” As people taste wines and hopefully like them, they’ll sign up for the retailer’s wine club, with guaranteed sales.

Haywood disagrees that tasting rooms will eventually drive rents up and other retail out of business. “The practicality of tasting rooms is that you don’t sell enough wine to a walk-in on a daily basis to make money. It’s difficult to even break even, except in certain months. But the retail space gives you exposure and you can develop your brand and sell directly from that point on.”

Carol Giovanatto, Sonoma’s city manager, confirmed there are no downtown tasting rooms among the city’s top 25 sales tax producers. And Haywood said some tasting rooms might not survive. “As tasting rooms are added, we are all drawing from the same pool of downtown visitors and simply dividing the traffic,” he pointed out. To reduce costs, Haywood is closed most weekdays in the winter.

If, for many, the tasting room business is a break-even experience, why do it?

“It’s like a sailboat,” said Jim Carter, who’s been in the wine business in Sonoma since 1964. “Some people dream of owning a sailboat, others dream of owning a winery.”

The availability of tools to make that dream a reality for anyone who wants to do it, may drive up competition to the point that it is no longer profitable for small producers. But Barnett thinks, at least for the time being, it’s the large winery that is at risk.

“The new paradigm makes the big winery concept obsolete. It retrieves the archetype of wine as elite and special, but reverses snobbishness at the same time,” he said. “Anyone can do it, therefore boom or bust cycles will control. Right now it is trendy, but for how long?”

Barnett said having too many tasting rooms shifts wine from being exclusive and rarified to a straight-out commodity. “All these vanity labels are going to remove the cache that made wine popular in the first place. Wine had a special cache, but what happens when it becomes a cliche?”

Unlike the hotel limitation measure, Barnett is not planning an initiative to settle the debate. But his Preserving Sonoma group has re-registered as a Political Action Committee that plans to support candidates and issues in upcoming elections.

In the meantime, the Sonoma City Council got an earful at the special study session on tasting rooms last night. And you can bet that there will continue to be lively discussions in the future while a divided city tries to figure out if, in Sonoma, “good wine is wine well used.”