It was an entirely civil meeting, with two sides debating the merits of wine tasting rooms and what, if anything, should be done about them.
On one side, local vintners say the current system is working fine without any interference, and that tasting rooms are improving Sonoma for tourists and locals alike. On the other, some residents say the sheer number of tasting rooms is threatening the character of Sonoma’s historic downtown and Plaza.
The special meeting – held Monday night as a joint session between the City Council and Sonoma Planning Commission at the Sonoma Community Center – was called in response to this growing controversy, with a chance for the public to weigh in. About 20 people did so, out of approximately 50 people in attendance.
“There’s a concern that I heard, and that I share, that there is a critical mass” in terms of how many tasting rooms the Plaza can accommodate, said Councilmember Steve Barbose, who called the special meeting in the first place.
Barbose’s comments – delivered early in the meeting, along with those of other city officials – made him a voice for the pro-regulation side Monday night. He praised the downtown area’s current tasting rooms (“You’ve done a terrific service for our community”) while also expressing belief that regulation of some sort was in order.
According to Planning Director David Goodison, there are now 23 tasting rooms and wine bars located within the “Plaza overlay zone” – generally the streets fronting the Plaza – representing 17 percent of total commercial space there. Counting nearby commercial spaces “brings the number of facilities in the vicinity of the Plaza to 29,” he said. This does not include full bars like Steiner’s or restaurants serving alcohol.
Barbose made it clear that, “As to the existing tasting rooms, there is no thought on anyone’s part” that they should be forced to obtain more licensing or be put out of business. But while several vintners and city leaders – including Planning Commissioner Gary Edwards, Councilmember David Cook and Mayor Tom Rouse – said the city should let the market decide the fate of downtown tasting rooms, Barbose said he doesn’t believe “the free market system is going to protect the character of our community.”
“We all understand that tourism is an important part of our economy, but we need to balance that,” Barbose said, with the needs of “those of us that live here 365 days a year.”
But when it comes to how to balance those needs, things get complicated quickly. A set of recommended regulations, approved by the Planning Commission in January and now awaiting council approval, offer one way – though not the only way – that tasting rooms could be regulated.
As Goodison explained, there are two types of alcohol licenses (granted by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) most relevant to the issue: Type 02 licenses, which many small vintners and tasting room operators use, and Type 42 licenses, which are “better described as wine bars or tap rooms.” In the latter case, purveyors can serve both beer and wine by the glass, while vintners with Type 02 licenses can serve only their own wines in small pours.