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.