Sonoma’s tasting rooms get closer to normal

A small change in the rules of operating during the coronavirus pandemic will make a big difference to Sonoma Valley's wine tasting rooms.

The policy that required tasting rooms to serve sit-down or dine-in meals with their wine has been lifted and, as of June 12, tasting rooms can return to operating without the food requirement.

'This is the news we have all been waiting for,' said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance (SVVGA).

Prema Behan, president of SVVGA and general manager of Three Sticks Winery, said the meal requirement could be a distraction and didn't enhance safety, and her winery complied but will return to serving cheese and charcuterie boards instead of full meals.

The California Regional Wine Associations, of which SVVGA is a member, sent a letter on May 26 to Gov. Gavin Newsom saying the meal requirement was 'illogical' and said that 'if a winery can safely reopen with food service, a winery can certainly reopen safely without food service.'

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county's health officer, appeared to agree on Wednesday that the risks were the same whether there was food with or without the wine being consumed when she announced the new guidelines.

Tasting rooms were allowed to open on May 23 with the meal requirement and outdoor seating only and then on June 5 indoor seating was allowed, but meals were still a requirement. It was the meal requirement that stymied some tasting rooms, which do not have a kitchen, proper storage or permits to serve food.

"We did not reopen during the period requiring a food component in tastings. I love pairing food with our wine but, given the particular requirements of the law, it wasn't logistically or economically feasible. We will, indeed, be reopening for by-appointment tastings on June 26th. The tasting will be different from what we typically offer but it will, as usual, be rad," said Jake Hawkes of Hawkes Wines, which has a tasting room just off the Plaza and another in Healdsburg.

It's good news for some tasting rooms such as Corner 103, which has been closed for two months and now plans to open on Saturday. Proprietor Lloyd Davis said it won't be back to normal just yet because of the sanitation requirements.

They will limit the time allotted for tastings and the number of guests in the room at the same time. Parties will be well spaced out and timed so that there is little chance of interaction between guests that didn't arrive together.

Financially, the industry has been hurt, Cottingham said, noting that the California Wine Institute released a report saying that tasting room sales throughout the state are projected to 'decline 80 percent in 2020 over 2019 levels, equating to a $3 billion loss to the industry,' she said.

'We are overjoyed to welcome back guests to Sonoma Valley especially because we know that our wineries are committed to practicing the highest safety standards,' Cottingham said.

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