Sonoma’s Walt Wines awarded tasting-room permit, will refuse to utilize it

The management of Walt Wines said they don’t intend to utilize the permit because under the terms of the city’s current tasting-room ordinance there are more benefits to operating without one.|

A small wine business off the Sonoma Plaza was awarded one of 24 tasting-room permits by the Sonoma Planning Commission earlier this month, but the management of Walt Wines said they don’t intend to utilize the permit.

That’s because under the terms of the city’s current tasting-room ordinance there are more benefits to operating without one, Walt Wines representatives said.

“That’s the problem with the ordinance,” Planning Commissioner Bill Willers said at the commission’s Aug. 18 meeting. “There’s no incentive (for tasting rooms) to come into compliance.”

Walt Wines at 380 First St. W. was awarded the wine tasting use permit in 5-0 vote by the commission Aug. 18, albeit under more restrictive regulations than in place when it applied.

Commissioner Sheila O’Neill at one point advised Walt Wine officials to ignore the permit and continue operating under the terms of the city’s 2014 bylaws. They grandfathered in existing tasting rooms as a “legal non-conforming use” when the City Council passed a new tasting room ordinance in 2019.

“It’s in your best interest” not to exercise the permit, O’Neill said.

Under its current “legal non-conforming use,” Walt Wines is allowed 28 indoor seats, 36 seats in its outdoor backyard area and eight seats on its front porch. Since the establishment in 2020 of the city’s Al Fresco Sonoma program, which allowed food-and-drink businesses to utilize additional outdoor areas for service during the pandemic, Walt Wines has added an additional eight seats to its front patio area.

While the Al Fresco Program paves the way for the temporary use of added outdoor seating, permanent expansion of tasting-room service areas is only allowed for wine shops with one of the 24 wine tasting use permits.

With the Al Fresco Sonoma program set to expire in April 2023, if not sooner, Walt Wines applied to the Planning Commission to approve a permit for the property First Street site, a former residential parcel which has been used as a tasting room since 2004, and by Walt Wines since 2009. But under the terms of the 2019 rules, only indoor seating is allowed under the new permits – a stipulation meant to ensure a wine shop can provide adequate parking for the number of seats it offers.

Therefore, if Walt Wines utilizes the indoor-seating-only permit, it would have to remove its 52 outdoor seats once the Al Fresco program ends.

By not utilizing the permit, the wine shop would only have to remove the eight seats it has added to its front patio at the end of Al Fresco.

“It’s a very strange law,” O’Neill said at one point in the meeting.

Walt Wines General Manager Jeff Zappelli confirmed this week that the company has no intention of utilizing its new permit.

“We thought that it was a fair thing to ask,” Zappelli said about applying to the commission for the additional eight seats. “But it sounds like that was a step too far for them.”

He said the tasting room will take advantage of its allowed patio seating until Al Fresco Sonoma expires, then “at that point we’ll go back to operating the way we have since 2009” with outdoor seating in the back and on the front porch. Zappelli agreed with Willers that the limits placed on tasting rooms under the 2019 ordinance eliminate many of the incentives to seeking a permit.

“It’s clear that the nonconforming use allows for outdoor patio (service),” said Zappelli. “So we’re going to continue that way.”

As he said to the commission, “In terms of asking a business to shrink their business opportunity” by utilizing a wine tasting use permit, “that’s a tough bill to take on.”

If Walt Wines doesn’t utilize its permit within a year, the permit will expire. Until then it will be among four tasting rooms to have been granted one of the 24 permits.

Kristina Tierney, an associate planner with the city, conceded that “the way the (the ordinance) is written now is making it challenging or very rare” for non-conforming businesses to seek a permit. She said the city will likely look to amend the ordinance to correct that.

“The intent of the ordinance was to bring all the businesses into compliance,” said Tierny. “(One) can see (the terms of the non-conforming status) changing at some point in the future.”

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