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Tasting room trauma?


We know an eight-year-old who is subject to a variety of fears, some of them realistic, others irrational, but all nonetheless real.

Her parents, as most parents would, try to address the rational fears with calm facts, reassurance and appropriate words of caution.

The irrational fears, involving inchoate suspicions of creatures under the bed or monsters in the closet, are harder to resolve and sometimes must simply be outgrown.

But those fears, too, must be addressed, because to ignore them, some experts would say, is to drive them deeper into the subconscious where they fester into nightmares, further from understanding and resolution.

Pardon, if you will, this clumsy attempt at child psychology, but it comes to mind in the wake of Monday night’s joint study session, conducted by the City Council and the Sonoma Planning Commission, on the topic of tasting rooms.

On the table was the question of what steps, if any, should be taken to limit or regulate the proliferation of wine tasting rooms on the Plaza. Implicit in that issue is the further question of whether or not tasting rooms are a problem, a threat to the integrity and quality of life enjoyed on and around our city’s most sacred ground, in short, a cultural bogeyman hiding in the community’s closet.

As with some childhood fears, community concerns about the impacts of increased wine tasting and tourism, at least as expressed in the Monday night study session, strike us as a mix of the real and the imagined. Among the fears we heard expressed were these:

Tasting rooms are driving up Plaza rents and pushing out small businesses.

Tasting rooms magnify the negative impacts of tourism, filling Plaza parking spaces and clogging the sidewalks. A fourth-generation Sonoman complained that Mary’s Pizza was overcrowded on a weekday “even in winter.”

Too many tasting rooms violate the historic quality of the Plaza and will, in time, turn Sonoma’s wine cachet into an overexposed cliche.

The Plaza is a park, not a tasting room, but on weekends, said one resident, it’s nothing but “chaos.”

The issue of Plaza rents may be the most frightening, certainly for Plaza business owners, but so far no one has produced hard evidence that tasting rooms, many of which are too small for all but the tiniest shops, are the cause of rent spikes.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument that, without tasting rooms, Plaza vacancies would mushroom.

There is also, according to police, no evidence that tasting rooms contribute to increases in drunken behavior or the risks of drunken driving. How much impact tasting rooms have on Plaza parking space remains an open question, but a packed Plaza is presumably what local businesses pray for, and tasting room visitors buy more than wine.

Shake the Sonoma snow globe and when the flakes settle some people see chaos and some people see commerce, some people see trauma from teeming hordes of tourists and others see waves of happy visitors eager to experience our historic town and to spend their money here.

Where does this leave us? It’s too soon to tell, but we’re confident that in the weeks ahead the City Council, the Planning Commission and our exceptionally capable city staff will find the right formula to address real issues wisely and, hopefully, to assuage our less rational fears.