By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The wine-centric town of Healdsburg isn’t ready to say ‘no’ to a new wine bar.
The City Council on Monday unanimously approved a use permit for a proposed wine bar that had been stymied last month by the Planning Commission, which was conflicted over whether there are too many alcohol establishments downtown.
“I can’t really find any reason to deny the use,” said Councilman Jim Wood, reflecting the sentiment of his colleagues on Monday. “If we want to have a larger discussion on wine tasting and bars, we can have it at a different time.”
“I don’t see any reason to stop it,” said Councilman Gary Plass, who said the application for the Bergamot Alley wine bar conforms with the general plan and won’t be detrimental to public safety.
Monday’s unanimous show of support was in contrast to last month’s deadlocked Planning Commission, where some commissioners expressed concerns that Healdsburg has too many alcohol-related establishments and needs to be known as more than a place to imbibe.
But the backlash appears to be directed more at wine tasting rooms, of which there are 20 in the downtown area, primarily serving tourists.
“There’s a sense people get liquored up and go around the Plaza and can hit quite a few, without putting in an effort,” said Senior Planner Lynn Goldberg.
And she said there is a perception that wine tasting rooms, which tend to be run by wineries, primarily are there to do marketing and sign up wine club members, but “are not there for the long haul.”
Kevin Wardell, the sommelier and winemaker proposing Bergamot Alley, emphasized that his place will be highly distinct. He plans to concentrate on Mediterranean wines and remain open until 2 a.m. to cater to restaurant employees after they get off work.
“In a town of people overtly enthusiastic about wine, there is currently no bar in Healdsburg dedicated to wine and specifically Old World wine,” Wardell said.
Wardell said he has access to niche, limited wines and hand-selects his inventory from small producers throughout Europe.
His establishment, which is scheduled to open next month, also will sell wine by the bottle. It will attract “an upscale high-disposable income clientele to the city, thereby enhancing the neighborhood,” he said.
Only a half-dozen speakers addressed the council and all were in favor of the wine bar.
The bar is proposed at 328 Healdsburg Ave., a half-block from the Plaza, in a space created by dividing the Midnight Sun store in half lengthwise.
Planning commissioners who voted against the application last month said they were not objecting to alcohol, but wanted to ensure a diverse retail base.
Two applications for downtown wine tasting shops have been rejected in the past few years, by the Planning Commission and the applicants did not bother to appeal.
Downtown Healdsburg has 29 on-site alcohol sales establishments, most of which are wine tasting rooms. That doesn’t include 22 restaurants, nearly all of which serve alcohol.
Police Chief Kevin Burke on Monday said “we don’t have a lot of calls for service related to ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) venues.”
Healdsburg is considered to have an alcohol overconcentration, according to ABC guidelines, but so do many of Sonoma County’s other downtowns, Goldberg said.
There are a number of wine outlets on the same block as Bergamot Alley, including the Kendall-Jackson winery tasting room across the street and the Wine Shop, a wine bar and retail sales venue.
Next door there is a wine permit for Sparkling, a proposed champagne bar in the Arboretum boutique. Wine Immersion, an appointment-only wine tasting room, is proposed on the second floor of a building at the end of the block.
On the same block, there is also an active permit for a wine and beer bar at the former Prohibition Bar, which went out of business last year.