By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Fresh from a bruising election battle over the size of hotels, Sonoma is experiencing another identity crisis, this time over tasting rooms and whether too many detract from the city’s historic character.
In an echo of the debate that has roiled Healdsburg, the Sonoma City Council is expected to decide soon whether new regulations are needed on tasting rooms and bars.
Preserving Sonoma, which backed the narrowly-defeated hotel limitation ballot measure in November, now is pushing for a cap on the number of tasting rooms in the city.
“A lot of people who live here are concerned it will become a monoculture of retail locations, and wine tasting and wine bars,” said Larry Barnett, chair of Preserving Sonoma.
Sonoma’s wine purveyors are pushing back, arguing that the number of tasting rooms reflects consumer demand for an experience that goes beyond the old model of pay, pour and move on.
At Envolve Winery near the city Plaza, for instance, guests are encouraged to lounge on the couch or on the patio as they sip from their glasses of syrah or chardonnay.
Co-owner Danny Fay said the atmosphere helps foster a direct-to-consumer business model that he said allows smaller purveyors to compete against larger wholesale operators.
“Are we to be penalized because the market is asking us to have that kind of tasting room?” Fay said Monday. “The traditional method is not the same as it used to be.”
The debate is almost a carbon-copy of the one that played out last year in Sonoma over whether hotels should be limited in size so as to curb tourism-oriented growth. Voters narrowly defeated Measure B, which cleared the way for hotels with more than 25 rooms but offered no clear mandate on the city’s future development.
As was the case with hotels, both sides in the tasting room debate claim they are looking out for the interests of city residents while promoting a locals-first agenda.
Fay emphasized that he attended secondary schools in Sonoma and that Envolve is an alternative to the “800-pound” wine conglomerates that are swallowing up smaller wineries. Envolve produces about 3,500 cases of wine annually at a Sonoma co-op.
“We’re the small guy in a big pond,” Fay said. “We’re utilizing the spaces (downtown) that were dormant, essentially, through the recession.”
But Barnett, a former mayor of Sonoma who once owned a bed-and-breakfast, wrote in a recent letter-to-the-editor that the number of tasting rooms threatens to turn the city plaza “into an open-air wine aisle supermarket.”
A 2012 city survey identified 24 wine-tasting facilities in Sonoma’s plaza area. By comparison, Healdsburg at roughly the same period of time had about 20 tasting rooms downtown.
After much debate, the Healdsburg City Council voted 4 to 1 in 2011 not to impose new restrictions on tasting rooms in that city. Council members instead left intact an informal guideline of allowing one tasting room or bar per side of each downtown block.
Most of Sonoma’s tasting rooms operate under licenses from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control given to winegrowers. They limit purveyors to pouring their own product.
A handful of facilities in Sonoma operate under more expanded licenses that allow employees to pour from multiple wineries or breweries. These establishments are often referred to as wine bars or tap rooms.
Of concern in Sonoma and elsewhere has been tasting rooms morphing into something akin to a bar, with customers ordering glasses of wine to enjoy while kicking back at tables or around fire pits.
Tasting rooms currently are allowed to open in Sonoma without a city use permit. Barnett’s group raises the concern that this unregulated growth is threatening to spill over into residential neighborhoods. They also raise the specter of an increase in alcohol-related problems, including drunken driving.
The city’s Police Department reported that 55 percent of first-time drunk driving arrests in Sonoma resulted after time spent at one of the city’s establishments serving alcohol. That included tasting rooms as well as restaurants and bars serving wine, beer and hard alcohol.
“How much alcohol sold to the public is enough? Must we have to wait for the inevitable catastrophe to see the need for regulation?” Barnett wrote in a letter that was read at the city’s Planning Commission on Jan. 9.
Fay, who is a spokesman for wine purveyors opposed to regulations, disputed that tasting rooms have led to an increase in drunken driving.
“The reality is DUIs are actually down since tasting rooms have come into the plaza because people are not driving around from vineyard to vineyard,” Fay said. He did not cite specific data.
Preserving Sonoma is calling for a cap of 30 tasting rooms in the downtown area, and to give preference on operating permits to establishments offering Sonoma or Sonoma Valley products.
The city’s Planning Commission on Jan. 9 backed a more modest set of new regulations. Tasting rooms smaller than 1,000-square feet could continue to open and operate without a use permit. Wine bars and tap rooms, however, would have to get city approval under the new standards.
Wine facilities would be limited to 26 special events annually, or six in any month. Two violations of an ABC license would trigger a conditional-use permit review.
Faced with opposition from wine purveyors, city planners backed off a proposal to limit tasting room hours to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. year-round. Instead, the recommendations call for those operating hours from Nov. 1 through March 30. The facilities would be allowed to stay open until 9 p.m. the other months.
Winegrower Richard Idell, who does not operate a tasting facility downtown but who has taken part in meetings to discuss new regulations, said purveyors are not happy with the proposed size restriction on future tasting rooms. But he said overall, the proposals amount to a “middle ground” in the debate.
Barnett, however, predicted there will be a large turn-out of his group’s supporters at the upcoming City Council meeting to decide the issue. That meeting date has not yet been announced.
“2014 is an election year. None of us will forget their vote,” Barnett said.