City Council Looks at Regulation for Plaza Wine Tasting Businesses Tonight

The council will consider requiring wine tasting bars in the plaza to obtain special use permits.

Anyone who's been to the plaza in Downtown Sonoma doesn't have to walk far to take a sip of Sonoma's finest wines.

But it may soon become harder to find a place to sample the goods.

The Sonoma City Council is setting its sites on proposed regulations that could force wine tasting businesses located in the plaza to obtain a use permit, normally required of restaurants, bars or taverns.

<<Does the plaza's wine tasting business take away from the local feel of the plaza? Tell us in the comments>>

The regulations came before the Sonoma City Planning Commission during its Dec. 13, 2012, meeting in which the commission discussed several issues with the wine tasting businesses.

According to a Sonoma Planning Commission staff report:

  • The Police Department has become concerned with the number of establishments that offer alcohol in the plaza. They note that 55 percent of first-time drunk driving arrests, have been generated from these types of businesses. They note that their concern is not about wine tasting businesses per se, but of the total amount of alcohol-serving businesses in the plaza.
  • Although considered a retail business, the intensity of the wine tasting business is expressed in seating, rather than square feet, which can lead to some challenges in how staff interprets how parking requirements are being met.
  • The wine tasting business have a potential of evolving into bars or taverns, thereby coming under licensing requirements of the Alcohol, Beverage Control. It could also open up different activities at the businesses, which are not in line with the city's definition of wine tasting.
  • The increasing number of wine tasting businesses may have an adverse affect on the character of the plaza. Wine tasting facilities are less likely to attract locals.

As it stands, both the city and the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control regulate wine tasting businesses in Sonoma.

The city has thus far classified the wine tasting businesses as 'general retail' (unless the business prepares and serves food more complex than bread and crackers, it would then be required to obtain a use permit), regardless if it’s tied to a specific winery. Classifying the business as general retail makes it a permissible use in the City's Development Code.

ABC however, does make a distinction in wine tasting business that are owned by a specific winery and those that are owned by a third party, which could be offering beer and wines from various sources. 

In the former instance, there is no local review of the business and it is allowed to operate under the parent winery's Type 02 license. In the latter type of business, ABC requires the business to go through a permitting process that involves the chief of the Sonoma Police Department, who must make a finding of "public convenience or necessity," if the license is to be issued.

Another important distinction is that the latter license empowers local wine tasting businesses to host activities that go beyond the way that the city defines wine tasting and in line with the events that happen in local bars and taverns.

As far as the business who are already serving wines to thirsty people in the plaza, the Planning Commission offers three options to the city council including: requiring that they obtain a use permit, not requiring a permit but imposing a set of operating procedures or imposing the procedures but only require a permit if a change in the operating procedures was sought.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Read the full staff report here

The City Council meets Monday night at its chambers located at Community Meeting Room, 177 First Street West, Sonoma. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.

Bill R. March 15, 2013 at 06:53 PM
So sad, those tiny tasting rooms were one of the only access points that poor or poorer small vintners and craft winemakers had to bring their products to market in an affordable way on scale with their budgets. These are little mostly Mom and Pop businesses, most of them could never afford in their whole lives to buy a 5 or 10 million dollar winery out in the countryside alongside a lot of the KJ, Constellation/Mondavi and Diagio mega corporations or people who come from big corporate money. Priced out of the market and pushed out by expensive new permits where would they be forced to go? It is pretty disheartening. It makes you almost wonder if there is big corporate money hiding behind this decision to try and push out the little guy and little gal. Could it be that they are so successful that they are taking away from the bottomline of the big, corporate up-valley Wineries? Almost every local that lives around the plaza that I know is in at least one or two plaza tasting room wine clubs. Well it sounds like it will be a big win for big business.
Bill R. March 15, 2013 at 06:58 PM
A big win for big business that will be blamed on us locals very sadly.
Pierrette Duriez March 15, 2013 at 10:05 PM
If the rent around the Plaza wasn't so high more little businesses could stay and reflect more of the friendly neighborhood feel. Only Real Estate firms and those selling alcohol seem to be able to afford the rent. Can't the city do something about this scourge of unbounded greed of property owners?
Ralph Hutchinson March 18, 2013 at 09:32 PM
Tasting rooms are just like bars but give free alcohol without limits on number of samples. Why wouldn't they be regulated and permitted? The other thing about the plaza is these tasting rooms are all in close proximity and tourists can stroll from place to place and get intoxicated quickly moreso than if they drive throughout the valley and have to get in and out of their cars and drive a few minutes it cuts down the amount of drinks. I hope City Council does the right thing and provides guidelines. Lesgislation is their primary responsibility aside from operation of the City but that mainly is done by City Managers, etc.
Ralph Hutchinson March 18, 2013 at 09:38 PM
A Tale of Two Valley's part 2.0 with Darius Anderson's Chateau Sonoma "french" style hotel. Remember Measure A and the big hilltop hotel that was proposed back in 1999 or so? No Carole I agree, I certainly don't want Sonoma to become some kind of cheesy Napa with no character, nor culture, and buildings that don't fit in. I don't care who the owner is, who they might know in their crony circles, how many fireworks they buy, nor how wealthy they might be. In Sonoma...the voice of the People matter more than a VIP owner's personal gain.


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