City Council approves moderate rules for wine tasting rooms

For the time being at least, Sonoma’s wine tasting room debate has been settled.

In a 4-1 vote Monday night, the Sonoma City Council approved some ground rules for Plaza tasting rooms – but chose not to put a cap on the number of tasting rooms allowed on the Plaza, or to require vintners to obtain use permits from the city.

“Hopefully we’re going to wrap this issue up this evening,” said Councilmember Ken Brown, part of the four-member majority that agreed only to limiting tasting room hours from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. year-round, limiting the number of special events to 26 a year, prohibiting “third-party special events” such as weddings, prohibiting food service and requiring a permit for live music.

Even those moderate regulations – which would affect none of the 26 tasting rooms currently operating on the Plaza – were more than Councilmember David Cook initially wanted.

At the outset of council deliberations, Cook said,  “I do not support this, and I’ll be voting no.” The reason, he said, is that local wine tasting is “farm to table” and an essential part of Sonoma’s economy and identity. And more crucially, he opposed any proposal to require that tasting room operators obtain use permits.

Planning Director David Goodison said the use permits would probably take applicants about two months to obtain – but Cook warned that process “could morph into something” more limiting.

But as the discussion evolved, the use permit requirement was left out, and Cook decided he could live with minor regulations in order to avoid the major ones.

That left only Councilmember Steve Barbose voting against Monday’s motion, because he felt the proposed regulations didn’t go far enough.

For Barbose, the sticking point was use permits, and he was strongly in favor of requiring them for all new tasting rooms. (Those already in existence would be grandfathered in.) He said the two-month process wasn’t onerous, and would give the city a chance to make sure the Plaza is changing to everyone’s satisfaction.

“Take a deep breath; each application will be judged on its own merits,” he said.

The final decision angered supporters of stricter regulations, such as Regina Baker, who audibly gasped at the prospect of wine tasting rooms being allowed to stay open until 10 p.m. year-round.

During the public comment period, Baker held up a map of the downtown and stated that 40 percent of all businesses on the Plaza served alcohol.

“This is not a wine industry problem, it’s a Sonoma city problem,” she said.

But local vintner Squire Fridell said he disagreed with “neo-Prohibitionists” who claim alcohol is bad.

“It’s good for our economy,” he said.

One thing all five council members agreed on is that the city should give closer scrutiny to Type 42 licenses, the state-issued permit for operating a beer or wine bar. Typical tasting rooms, however, use “duplicate” Type 2 licenses – essentially the license already obtained by vintners in order to make their wine in the first place.

Following Monday night’s vote, city staff was directed to craft language incorporating the new regulations. The new rules will then return to the council for final approval at a future meeting.