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Regulations for tasting rooms, wine bars?

The Sonoma City Council is currently considering the fate of nearly two-dozen tasting rooms and wine bars in the Plaza – and the prospect for approving any such future establishments.

In January, the city’s Planning Commission sent recommendations to the council on regulating these places. The recommendations included a limit on the hours of tasting rooms, taking into account that most in Sonoma close by 7 p.m. in the winter months and 9 p.m. in the summer months.

The commission also recommends putting a cap on promotional events at tasting rooms and limiting the space tasting rooms can use when occupying space within a larger business.

The city council is currently reviewing these recommendations and considering community concerns.

Preserving Sonoma, the group most widely known for its Measure B, hotel-limitation ballot initiative last fall, is also taking a stand to regulate tasting rooms on the Plaza. On its website, the group states, “The next issue facing Sonoma is the proliferation of wine bars.”

Larry Barnett, a member of Preserving Sonoma who is at the forefront of the movement to limit tasting rooms and wine bars, feels the city must also put a cap on how many tasting rooms are in the Plaza area, describing how a boom in tasting rooms has taken the rarity out of traveling to wineries.

“The introduction of the wine bar on Sonoma Plaza eliminates the need for a public winery.” This, Barnett explains, is not only degrading the wine industry, but also the very character of small-town Sonoma.

“Nearly 30 already dot the downtown, and more are coming unless some limitations are placed on the total number,” Preserving Sonoma’s website states. “With hundreds of wineries waiting in the wings, Sonoma Plaza might end up an open-air wine-aisle supermarket.”

The city identifies 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.

These tasting rooms and wine bars, according to the city, make up 17 percent of the business space in the Plaza retail area.

Those in favor of regulating tasting rooms and wine bars have also raised concerns that an increase in alcohol-serving establishments on the Plaza would lead to more crime – particularly more DUIs – in the area.

Sonoma’s laws surrounding drinking allow adults of legal drinking age to consume alcohol in public places between 11:30 a.m. and sunset, meaning people can drink wine, or tequila or beer at Depot Park, the Plaza park, and even on a city sidewalk, according to Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett, in reference to Chapter 9.36 of city code.

Sackett, who says his first priority in looking at tasting rooms and wine bars is making sure any regulation positively impacts public safety, says DUIs should not be the factor to determine the effects of alcohol consumption on public safety.

Last year, his department recorded 72 DUIs in Sonoma. In 2012, there were 70, he said. “I do know our DUIs are up a little bit, but not substantially. I do know our crime rate is up this year, considerably,” Sackett said at the Monday night meeting focusing on tasting rooms.

Later, he cautioned any correlation to these crimes and alcohol, and even more specifically, any correlation between an increase in crime and DUIs to tasting rooms. He did say, however, that an increase in any sort of drinking could lead to an increase in crime. “Logic would dictate, more opportunity for alcohol consumption means more opportunity for (crime).”

He noted that when Plaza Liquors closed between ownerships, there was “a considerable reduction in alcohol-related crimes on the Plaza.”

Through information provided to police, and given in a survey for first-time offenders, Sackett is able to see where DUI offenders had their last drink. “In essence ... survey results indicate somewhere between 55 and 65 percent coming from an ABC-licensed establishment – that could be a bar, a restaurant or tasting room,” he said, noting the information is subjective, dependent on the memory and forthrightness of the arrested individual. “Generally speaking, it’s a 21-to-35-year-old male,” Sackett added, “and generally (they are) Valley residents.”

But in a discussion about regulating tasting rooms, an important distinction must be made between a true “tasting room” and a wine bar or a tap room, said Sackett.

Both can serve wine and both could be impacted by regulations the city council is considering now. The real difference comes down to the licenses those establishments use to serve alcohol in compliance with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).

John Carr, a spokesman for ABC headquarters in Sacramento, explained the differences between the types of licenses the agency issues allowing businesses to serve alcohol. Type 02 licenses allow a winery to serve tastes of wine on the premises where they grow grapes and produce the wine. A “Duplicate Type 02” license permits the winery to have one offsite tasting room. A “Type 42” license, he said, allows businesses to serve wine or beer at a location where either they produce the beverage, or that they broker from someone else who makes it. “Type 41” and “Type 48” licenses, respectively, allow establishments to serve food with alcohol and all types of alcohol. Under ABC provisions, any of these establishments can serve alcohol until 2 a.m.

Wineries may offer tastings for free or charge consumers. They may sell wine by the glass or by the bottle to be consumed on or off premise. Wineries may also join together and operate shared tasting rooms, where consumers may taste wines from more than one winery. In the case of a shared tasting room, each winery must have a designated space where its wine is served, or the wine must be served in a glass with a distinctive marker exclusive to the licensee. In a shared tasting room, each winery’s wine must be kept separate, with sales divided appropriately.

In an interview with the Index-Tribune, Sackett said, “I’m not as concerned about Type 02 licenses.” He does want to call attention to the possible uses of Type 42 licenses – and wants the city to make note of the difference between them. “Type 42s can move around. And they have moved around,” he said. Meanwhile, “I’ve never had an issue with Type 02s.”

Sackett, who must approve such establishments, and writes letters of recommendation to the City Council, cites an example of why establishments with Type 42 licenses should be regulated. The recently-closed Sonoma tap room, called Proof’d, located near Chase bank on West Napa Street, originally submitted plans to Sackett, he said, indicating it would only serve tastes of wine. But to Sackett’s surprise, when Proof’d opened, there was no wine in sight but “six beer taps and shelves of beer.” Sackett said he called ABC to see what could be done about the discrepancy but was informed that with a Type 42 license, Proof’d was completely within its rights to serve either wine or beer and sell glasses or bottles of the alcohol.

“It was within the purview of the license and, absent local control. We couldn’t do anything about it,” Sackett recalled, adding he was told ABC does not regulate these establishments and all regulation would fall within local use permits.

While Sackett feels some regulation on establishments with Type 42 licenses is pertinent to preserve public safety, he doesn’t think a cap is necessary.Rather, he feels that policy should be in effect to allow the city to regulate tap rooms and wine bars so that “we don’t wake up one day with 42s that operate in a way that is inconsistent with the way we intended them to.”

“That regulation can take many different shapes and sizes,” Sackett said.