Number of Sonoma Plaza wine tasting rooms down 38%

The Sonoma Plaza is down to 21 wine tasting rooms — a 38% drop off from its pre-pandemic high of 34 wine dens in 2019.

The latest tally of downtown tasting rooms was discussed at the April 14 meeting of the Sonoma Planning Commission, when the commission considered allowing a new use permit for Darling Wines to operate in the Sonoma Court Shops on East Napa Street.

Planning Commissioner Shelia O’Neill described herself as “amazed and excited” that the number of tasting rooms had lowered so quickly in the wake of city officials placing a limit of 25 tasting rooms in the so-called Plaza Retail Zone in 2019.

“Probably it was related to the shelter in place (driving some tasting rooms out of business) during COVID,” O’Neill said. “But I remember when that (tasting room ordinance) came out we were all very scared about what was going to happen. And to see us with a few extra spots here is pretty amazing.”

The Sonoma City Council adopted a tasting room ordinance in 2019, as part of an effort to curb the proliferation of wine-tasting businesses in the city center. The number of tasting rooms in the Plaza Retail Zone had more than doubled in the five years prior to 2017, when the council placed a moratorium on new tasting rooms.

When the ordinance passed, limiting tasting rooms to 25, the council grandfathered use permits in for the approximately 34 in operation at the time, predicting the number would eventually whittle down to 25 through the natural attrition of businesses.

While commissioners noted the decline of tasting rooms during the pandemic, they also acknowledged a related health-crisis trend: the proliferation of outdoor drinking and dining services. Darling Wines, for instance, had applied for a use permit to serve up to 35 seats inside its facility, and an additional 12 seats outside in the Sonoma Court Shops common area.

Commissioner Larry Barnett said the increased seating capacity for food and wine businesses due to the use of public and private outdoor space should be reflected in the number of parking spaces a use permit allots. The city currently requires one parking space per 300 square feet of total sales area. At 944 square feet of space, Darling Wines requires three parking spaces, according to city code. But, Barnett said, the tasting room’s request for 12 outdoor seats should warrant additional parking.

“It’s clear something has happened over the last couple of years to make outdoor seating highly popular and we’re seeing an increasing number of applications for increased outdoor seating for a variety of venues — and I think we need to reexamine its relationship in a major way to parking demand,” Barnett said. “There’s no logic to say that somebody who’s going to sit at a table outdoors is any different to someone who sits at a table indoors in so far as the parking demand is concerned.”

In addition to Darling Wines’ request for outdoor seating at the April 14 meeting, Walt Wines had also applied to add 16 outdoor seats at its tasting room at 380 First St. W. Those seats are currently being utilized as part of the city’s pandemic-related outdoor seating allowances, and now the tasting room is seeking to make them permanent before the Sonoma Al Fresco program expires Oct. 31. Consideration of the application was continued to a future meeting at the request of the applicants.

Darling Wines will operate in the Sonoma Court Shops space that had previously been occupied by Envolve Winery. While Darling Wines’ use of the space won’t have changed since Envolve left the space in 2021, a new tasting-room permit is required if a tasting-room space has been vacant for more than 60 days. Darling Wines plans to employ one full-time tasting room manager and two additional full-time staff members. Its permit would allow hours of operation to the general public from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., as well as a maximum of 26 invitation-only events per year.

Owners Thomas and Ashley Darling were unable to attend the meeting, but submitted a letter to the City Council to be read as part of the public comment portion of the meeting.

“Darling Wines is currently a small but mighty three-person team,” wrote the Darlings. “Since we are such a small team, our intent is to operate indoors only upon opening with the hope of offering our outdoor seating as a goal for the future.” The couple added that they’ve been in business since 2017 and crush their grapes at Magnolia Wine Service on Eighth Street East. Their grapes are sourced from coastal vineyards in western Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties, according to

The commission approved the use permit in a 7-0 vote, directing staff to add one additional parking space if and when Darling Wines utilizes its outdoor seating.

Email Jason Walsh at

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