Sonoma City Council nixes tasting room cap

For the time being at least, Sonoma’s wine tasting 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 a tasting room could host to 26 per 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 onerous.

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 enraged 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 the business 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.

Larry Barnett, founder of Preserving Sonoma and a former councilmember considered to be a leader in the effort to curb tasting rooms, said Monday that more oversight of the employees was needed as well.

“There’s no recommendation for mandatory training for the employees at these wine tasting facilities of any type,” he said.

Above all, Barnett has called for a cap on the total number of tasting rooms allowed downtown. East Napa Street, he said, is already “very, very close” to becoming a “wine alley.”

But Richard Idell, a member of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, encapsulated the opposing viewpoint that tasting room regulations are a solution looking for a problem.

“We continue to scratch our heads on why we spend so much time on an issue for which there is no problem,” he said, adding, “I’ve never heard the police chief complain about wine tasting rooms.”

“I would really discourage you from trying to legislate and regulate an industry that’s already highly regulated.”

Barbose rejected the notion that public discussion and debate over regulating tasting rooms was a waste of the city’s time.

“I don’t think the question of what problem are we trying to solve is the right question,” he said, explaining that the city was trying to be proactive rather than reactive.

Of the 26 tasting rooms downtown, “Only three are open later than 8:30 (p.m.),” Goodison told the council. In addition, he said, hosting special events “does not appear to be a common practice” among the tasting rooms, and only one – Eric K. James Vineyards – regularly hosts music, for which owner Robert O’Maoilriain has obtained a separate permit.

Fridell seemed to strike a nerve with council members during his three-minute remarks by bemoaning the “us-versus-them” nature of the debate.

“Every time I come to a meeting like this, it always seems to be, it’s ‘them’ and ‘us,’ whoever ‘them’ is and whoever ‘us’ is. But we are ‘us.’ … We’re local people, we live here, we employ local people.”

Mayor Tom Rouse echoed these sentiments when he stated, later in the meeting, “I’m not going to regulate the tasting rooms on the Plaza. They are our residents. They are our friends. They are our neighbors.”

He then clarified that he wouldn’t approve a use permit requirement, but would agree to the milder rules regarding “operating standards.”

“The common requirements for me are also kind of important,” agreed Councilmember Laurie Gallian. It was she and Barbose who suggested limiting hours of operation to between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“Sonoma’s a ghost town after 9 o’clock,” Barbose said.

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