WatchSonoma Watch

County considers limits on wine tasting rooms

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

16 Responses to “County considers limits on wine tasting rooms”

  1. Claude says:

    I think you will find more responsible drinkers and hosts at your average tasting room than most pubs with “happy hours” STARTING at 4:30. If the county wants to limit afternoon drinking they should do it across the board, not focus on a single industry. Would you ask the local convenience store to stop selling beer at 5:00? I doubt it.

  2. Treeamigo says:

    Even after events that are full of drunks (Passport, Barrel Tasting) I don’t recall many alcohol related crashes, let alone deaths.

    The bulk of serious alcohol-related crashes are caused by drivers over .15 BAC- often repeat offenders. These are not wine tasters or casual drinkers.

    If the County wants to crack down and save lives, then station an officer near every bar, liquor store and convenience store and screen people as they leave the parking lot. You will get some serious offenders off the road.

  3. Phil says:

    An important issue for many people in Sonoma County. On one hand, locals or new locals suggesting that wineries are pushing the envelope on what they can and can’t do with their direct tasting rooms sales. For 80% of all local tasting rooms, a three-tier distribution is NOT an option as corporate distributors are beating the hell out of them on their prices (Some receive only 30-35% of retail).

    The one’s complaining about wineries don’t see just how much MONEY they bring into the local community. Your roads you use to drive on are mostly maintained by the wineries on that road. I don’t believe residents pay a “traffic mitigation fee” do they? These fees ($3,000-20,000) pay for the road maintenence and tree care on YOUR street. Moreover, wineies with tasting rooms bring millions and millions of dollars in fed, state and more importantly, LOCAL taxes revenue to YOUR neighborhood. Every $100 purchased at a local tasting room, approximately $4.50 comes back to Sonoma County for many local programs. Large wineries who distribute don’t send a single penny back to us local residents.

    Many tasters I’ve seen in the tasting room do use designated drivers and many wineries offer complimentary goodies for them.

    It’s not in the wineries interest to serve drunks. We have family, friends and lovers on the roads coming home just like everyone else. What is happening to personal responsibility?

    If this PRMD commission clamps down too hard, people will scream… Hear that recently elected Carrillo? I know many many many vineyard owners had YOUR sign along their vineyard frontage. Something to keep in mind, eh? Or do you take contributions from only the large corporate wineries who, BTW, take most if not all their money out of SC and return pennies on the dollar back to the local SC communities.

  4. Michael says:

    Selling wine at a TASTING room is a business that is very different selling wine via a tasting room is a far cry from operating a bar or cocktail lounge. Guests are encouraged to sample but NOT drink. Drunken orgies as implied by those “concerned citizens” testifying before the Board don’t happen. Such implications are nothing but hyperbole and misinformation designed to promote puritanical self interests.
    The wine industry is an important part of the county economy and a principal driver in both the Ag and tourism sector employment and income. The Board should carefully consider the issue so that our citizens are truely protected while not damaging killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

  5. Ron Saikowski says:

    Wineries want to sell their wines in their tasting rooms and get the full dollar out of that sale. On the other hand, wineries can sell their wines through the three-tier system and get only 50 cents on the dollar with the distributor and retailer taking the other fifty cents of that “dollar sale.” If I owned the winery, I would want to sell as much wine as I could at the winery so I can get full dollar from that sale. Here in Texas, we have winery tasting rooms open as late as 10 PM. I guess that is why Texas as the fifth largest wine producing state in the USA has very little of its wines ever leaving the State’s Border. I am wondering why the County Commissioners got involved in Sonoma. Are distributors paying the County Commissioners off so the Distributors can make more $$$$$???

  6. Chrus Kelly says:

    Its hard to taste at more than 3 places in an afternoon. Especially if you visit wineries that taste by appointment only. Pour a taste, encourage spitting. Stay open as long as you want.

  7. Server says:

    I work, full time, in a tasting room in Sonoma Valley. Our room closes at 5. Most of the “guests” that I see scrambling for the front door at 4:55 PM that express a desire to continue tasting and want to know about any other tasting rooms that are open later are NOT what I would characterize as our serious buyers. Let’s face it, we are there to sell wine, not fill the lonely hours that some tourist has to kill before their dinner reservation at 7. The people that I see coming to the winery to buy wine that are the big buyers come as early in the day as they can, get it done and get clear of the tasting rooms before the late afternoon crowds who typically have already had enough wine before I have to assess their “level” of intoxication. I support more standardization of the operating hours of tasting rooms, which really should have a different role than bars and restaurants.

  8. The Issue is Safety
    Limiting tasting hours is not the answer. All wineries are careful about over-serving their visitors. I suggest we focus on safety both in the form of educating our tasters and continuing to educate our pourers. An active education program will help our responsible tasters and will better inform those whe are less responsible. This is where the County can truly help. If the County really wants to help then build a program to educate our tasters about safe tasting and safe behavior.

  9. Wineries pour a one ounce and give the guests an option of five or six pours. Anyone exhibiting that they have had too much simply is not given any more. That is for the safety of everyone.

    I agree with the comments that have been left. If a person wants to go out anywhere on their afternoon out, they can go to restaurants or bars and order what they want. How does that keep them off the road?

  10. Leah Canon says:

    The idea that tasting rooms must operate different hrs than a restaurant interferes with the civil liberaties in a right to work state wherein business owners have a right to conduct business and sell their goods. Most pp on the planet work for a living. If anything, any place that sells any goods which contributes to the economy of our great state should be allowed expanded hours and be business friendly. Anyone interested, I follow wine news and post items on my facebook page, feel free to add me as a friend. United we stand.

  11. winegirl says:

    this seems really unfair to tasting rooms and wine tasters. We don’t require shorter hours or designated drivers for bars or restaurants, and that would be where the serious drinking goes down…

  12. Eric says:

    It’s a blind assumption that wine tasters don’t drink responsibly, or hire a driver, or have a friend drive. Wine tasting is a different environment and should not be lumped in with people out “binge drinking”. But… for argument’s sake, let’s assume that they are all out to drink as much as possible. If a tasting room closes at 4:00, their thought process might turn to, “Hey… let’s go somewhere where we can REALLY drink! This sipping stuff is for the birds.” Then they can go to one of a hundred bars. Again, this whole tasting room topic was brought up based on the premise that people are completely irresponsible, and will drink as much as they are allowed and then drive. If that’s the case, 4:00 wine curfue won’t stop a thing. All it does is shift these crazy irresponsible drinkers to a different venue. But look at the bright side… we will start losing money from tourism that really, really benefits all of Sonoma County.

  13. leslie says:

    Wow, Let’s attack the last of the prosperity that this county has to offer!People go to TASTE, not drink at wineries. There is a huge difference. I know, let’s combine the new pot stores with the tasting rooms and mellow all of these Bad Drunks out.

  14. Mary R says:

    Why stop at the wineries? We should make all the bars and taverns close at 4:00pm also. Isn’t it ridiculous we let there be places serving alcohol after dark?

  15. none says:

    at some point, there will be some major fatalities caused by tasting-room attendees that will spur some real changes in how these tasting rooms operate. right now, there’s no control on drunk people driving around our roads hopping from one room to another.

  16. Whaaaaat? says:

    Hay, I still got two more bottles of wine left. I dont drive home till{HIC] that mellow feeling sweeps over me after the therd bottle.