No simple solutions for Sonoma’s glut of downtown wine-tasting rooms

As summer heats up and more tourists come to Sonoma, residents are growing increasingly restless over the absence of limits on tasting rooms near the Plaza.|

As summer heats up and more tourists come to Sonoma for wine-tasting, among its other “destination city” attractions, residents are growing increasingly restless over the absence of limits on tasting rooms in the downtown business district.

A recent count showed 30 tasting rooms just around the Sonoma Plaza in the commercial zoning district – as well as several restaurants and taverns that also sell alcohol – and at least one more in the works for opening this summer.

This demonstrates an increase of almost 50 percent in just the last three years, according to figures from a 2014 staff report to the Sonoma City Council. That report counted 20 tasting rooms, out of 136 ground-floor businesses within the overlay zone, and three more as a combination of wine tasting and other retail.

It’s a trend that has many locals concerned, if not discouraged. Wrote one commenter on a recent article on the subject, “They (tasting rooms) are a terrible intrusion on what was once a wonderful shopping area around the Plaza. There was a real meat market, a supermarket, a hardware store, a drug store/ice cream parlor …”

Visitors, however, don’t find it a problem at all. “Some people complain about the cost of tasting, but nobody complains about too many tasting rooms,” said Anne Berke, at Fulcrum Wines in the Sonoma Court Shops complex of businesses.

The apparent plethora of tasting rooms has drawn comparisons with another Sonoma wine country destination, Healdsburg. Though Healdsburg has a similar number of tasting rooms in its downtown business district, they are spread out over a wider area thanks to a long-standing dispersal policy that permits only one tasting room per “block face.”

“Meaning you can have a tasting room on one side of the street and another on the other side, so it’s really two per block,” said Healdsburg’s City Manager David Mickaelian. “What they’re trying to avoid is having two tasting rooms next to each other.”

That policy has been an unofficial guide for most of the decade, but this summer Healdsburg’s City Council is expected to codify it in the Development Code. (As Capt. Barbossa said in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, “The Pirate’s Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules …”)

This points to one key difference between how Healdsburg handles tasting room permitting and how Sonoma does it. Here, there is no use permit required to open a tasting room, just a Class 2 ABC license that makes it possible to get a business license to operate in the downtown business district. This means opening a tasting room is essentially a non-reviewed process: there’s nothing in the Sonoma Development Code that says otherwise.

In the mixed-use zone, which roughly extends down Broadway south of Maple and in some other pockets of the city as well, a use permit is mandatory, which requires Planning Commission review with City Council oversight. A more rigorous process, yes – but once issued, a use permit “runs with the land,” meaning changing the winery won’t void the permit to operate a tasting room at that location. That’s not true with a business license: not only must it be renewed annually, but if the business changes a new license is needed, and a new winery can’t ride on an earlier tasting room’s permit without their own Class 2 ABC license.

Simply put, slowing or arresting the increase in winery tasting rooms means changing the city’s Development Code, perhaps to require a use permit to open a tasting room. It’s a process that involves the Planning Commission and the City Council, public hearings and a two-step voting procedure. Indeed, it’s a course the current City Council has shown some willingness to consider, perhaps recognizing the dissatisfaction of the residents. “Due to the renewed interest in the issue of the number of tasting rooms on the Plaza, it will most likely come before the council later this summer,” said Mayor Rachel Hundley.

Civics lesson aside, complaints about the tasting-room glut continue to surface, as in a recent City Council meeting where hair dresser Len Handeland leveled a passionate diatribe against the owner of Sonoma Court Shops (a message he also delivered as a letter to this paper). When his five-year lease for the Red Loft (a historic carriage house deep inside the Sonoma Court Shops complex) expired, he found himself faced with a substantial increase to retain his place of business.

“The out-of-town landlord, someone whose reputation already precedes her, has thrown my life, not to mention my reputation, into turmoil,” he complained. As it turned out, once he failed to renew his five-year lease, the owner and realtor (Ryan Snow) were in the catbird seat, and well within their rights to increase his lease to the going rate.

But shops were not always so in demand, remembers Melissa Detert Redmond, the owner of the Sonoma Court Shops development. “We experienced many, many years with many vacant properties,” remembered Redmond. “People would look down the alley from the sidewalk, not wanting to walk down the alley to the shops or anything in the back … We could not attract any one.”

She recalled it was Snow who suggested focusing on wineries for business, and the name Vine Alley was proposed by a family member. One of the first tasting rooms to open at the Sonoma Court Shops was Bryter Estates Wines, in the spring of 2012. They now operate a by-appointment-only tasting room in Napa, having given up their Sonoma location when their own five-year lease expired earlier this year.

Two of the other earliest tasting rooms at Vine Alley have also left in recent months – Sigh Sonoma is relocating to 120 W. Napa St., but Two Amigos shut down their tasting room altogether about a year ago.

Fulcrum moved into the Two Amigos space, and owner-winemaker David Rossi places a high value on his Sonoma location. “It really kind of grounds us, and gives our winery a home,” he said. “For the first 10 years” – he started his wine business in 2006 – “I would say 5 percent of our sales were in California. With the Sonoma tasting room, now it’s fully half.”

Still, to call Fulcrum a Sonoma winery is a stretch: Rossi is from Arizona, learned winemaking in his Pittsburgh basement, currently lives in New Jersey, and does his winemaking at a custom crush facility in Napa.

Similarly, Rancho Maria Wines – which opened a tasting room on First Street West just before Christmas – offers wines from Dry Creek Valley, outside of Healdsburg. Owner Sebastian Juarez is delighted to be in Sonoma, speaking highly of the welcome he’s received not only from fellow businesses but the city planning department itself.

But Juraez admits that the main reason he’s in Sonoma is because he couldn’t find an affordable tasting room location in Healdsburg – where permits are hard to come by in a city that has imposed use permit limits in their downtown business district.

“Healdsburg didn’t want any more wine-tasting rooms,” said Juarez. “So we came here.”

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