Wine tasting along the wine roads of Sonoma County will be getting new scrutiny as a result of a county planning commission effort to curb the hours that tasting rooms remain open into late afternoon.
Traditionally, winery tasting rooms have closed at 4 p.m., but in recent years, more and more of them have been seeking permission through their use permits to serve wine sippers until 5 or 6 p.m.
Graton resident Jo Bentz popped the cork on the issue last month during the hearing on the Best Family winery application. Noting that the Graton and Occidental area already has at least a half-dozen tasting rooms, Bentz wondered if extending their operating hours could put more alcohol-impaired drivers on the road.
“We have people drinking and people driving out of tasting rooms … maybe these tasting rooms should be required to have designated drivers,” she said.
West county Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the Best Family’s request for a 6 p.m. closing hour at its tasting room was too late, and supervisors agreed, trimming it back to 5 p.m.
However, Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, also told supervisors that the entire issue of tasting room hours is under review by the county-appointed planning commission.
“The commissioners have noted there’s been heightened concern, particularly among residents along Dry Creek Road and in the Sonoma Valley, about avoiding late afternoon tastings that turn into cocktail hours with bar-like atmospheres,” Barrett said. “They’ve told the (PRMD) staff that they want more consistent hours in the future.”
Planning commission chairman Dick Fogg confirmed that the panel will come to supervisors with a recommendation on limiting tasting room hours. Although wineries currently holding use permits can’t have their tasting room hours changed, they can be altered when wineries apply for many types of use permit changes, he said.
“The county has been willy-nilly and arbitrary on hours. But on top of that, the system has been operating without a lot of equitability according to the size of the tasting room or the volume of production at the winery,” Fogg said. “If you turn everybody out on the streets at 6 p.m., we don’t want a lot of drivers who have been lit up and drinking since 10 a.m.”
— Bleys W. Rose
The Press Democrat