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Should City put stopper on tasting rooms?


The Sonoma City Council is considering whether to place limits on the number of wine tasting rooms allowed around the Plaza.

And, to put it in wine tasting terms, they’re going to swirl and waft over this one for a while.

The Council and interested community members met in a study session Monday evening to solicit feedback and gauge thoughts on whether the city suffers a glut of cabernet commerce in the downtown. According to the City’s count, of the 138 ground-floor businesses around the Plaza, 23 — or 17 percent — are wine-tasting facilities. That number has grown steadily since the recession ended in 2012 when there were 13 wine-tasting rooms.

And the numbers may be even more dramatic. City Manager Cathy Capriola said the tasting-room count “around the broader Plaza” could be as high as 33.

Coinciding with the rise in the number of tasting rooms has been a rise in the number of community complaints about tasting rooms – and the increases in tourism and commercial rent that come with them. Or, as the city staff report more charitably described it, “the questions of what constitutes healthy business diversity and an appropriate balance of resident-serving and visitor-serving uses are long-standing topics of community discussion.”

Multiple retail businesses have had to abandon their leases on the Plaza in recent years, as commercial rents have in some cases more than doubled since 2012 – leaving cash flush wineries to swoop in and fill the vacuum.

Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison began the discussion by presenting a scene-setting overview of businesses on the Plaza, from its retail glory years of the mid-20th century – when hardware and grocery stores were must-stop shops for Sonomans – to the 1980s and ‘90s when local-serving businesses migrated to outlying shopping centers and strip malls, while Plaza commerce increasingly catered to tourists seeking food, wine and specialty items.

Goodison’s report asserted that for brick-and-mortar businesses to succeed in the high-rent city center they need to offer unique goods and services that cannot be easily replicated online, while providing an “authentic sense of place.”

“This approach can work extremely well in Sonoma, as the city has rich history embodied in the Plaza,” wrote Goodison in the staff report. “But it can also lead to products and price points that may be off-putting or simply not of interest to local residents as part of a regular shopping experience.”

Several of those local residents in attendance at the meeting were prone to agree. Sonoma resident Tom Conlon even called for a “tourism area lifecycle assessment.”

“Many people feel that we are at a tipping point,” said Conlon. “A moratorium (on tasting rooms would allow the city) to step back and plan for the next 10 or 15 years.”

Resident Georgie Kelly decried the city’s lack of regulation on tasting rooms.

“The let-the-market-decide attitude does not work,” said Kelly, pointing out that the number of alcohol-serving businesses on the Plaza has doubled since 2012. “We have 30 right now. What is this going to look like (in another five years) if we leave it up to the market?”

Sonoma resident Robert Demler, meanwhile, spoke in favor of tasting rooms – and suggested their pouring hours need to be extended later into the evening.

“You can look at a historic building for only just so long,” joked Demler about what people like to do on the Plaza. Demler also spoke to the “tension” that exists between locals and tourists.

“It’s a fact of life,” said Demler. “We have to live with it.”

Maureen Cottingham, director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, explained that changing business models and distribution difficulties in the wine industry have propelled the rise in tasting rooms.

“There is definitely a shift toward direct-to-consumer (wine sales),” said Cottingham. “There’s a vast majority of our wineries that can’t get distribution.”

She said that not only speaks to the value of having a tasting room near eager wine country tourists, but also other direct-to-consumer strategies such as wine club memberships. More than 40 percent of Sonoma’s tasting rooms are by appointment only, said Cottingham.

City staff presented the Council with a variety of options for corking any alleged over-abundance of tasting rooms – from doing nothing at all to placing some sort of numerical limit on wine-pouring businesses. According to staff, some tactics employed by other wine country towns include stipulating that tasting rooms adhere to local-grape-sourcing requirements; giving preference to locally based wineries; and limiting the number of wine rooms per city block.

Unlike Sonoma, most towns require tasting rooms apply to the city for a use permit. Most of the Sonoma City Council members – some of whom said they often only find out about new tasting rooms after a business license has been approved – agreed a use permit makes sense.

Beyond that, any council consensus about what, if anything, the city should do about tasting rooms was as mixed as a $7 carafe of table wine.

Three councilmembers – Amy Harrington, David Cook and Mayor Rachel Hundley – expressed an openness to placing a temporary moratorium on new tasting rooms within the Plaza’s retail zone, if only to, in the words of Cook, “push the pause button” while city officials hammered out possible new regulations to its tasting room policies.

Cook, however, cautioned against over-regulation.

“Business can regulate itself,” said Cook. It creates problems, “when the government gets involved.”

Harrington said she supports prioritizing local grapes and local wineries and suggested there’s an environmental benefit to having the tasting destinations be in a central location downtown – as opposed to more remote rural areas where individual vehicle trips are needed.

Hundley said she’d like to explore a variety of options and lamented that the study session had only skimmed the surface on economic issues.

“The economy is a very complex thing that we have rarely talked about up here with any depth,” said Hundley.

More firmly opposed to a moratorium was Councilmember Gary Edwards, who said he’d prefer to leave the number of tasting rooms the Plaza up to the free market.

“The No. 1 crop in Sonoma is probably money,” said Edwards, pointing out the number of financial consultants in town. “Should we have a moratorium on those guys? Should we have a moratorium on lawyers?”

City staff will next draft options for the council to consider at a future meeting this fall.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.