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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.

Bridgene Raftery March 14, 2013 at 03:05 PM
In regards to the affects on the plaza, I really feel all the wine tasting businesses takes away from the feel of our plaza. There are just to many, and more popping up all the the time we are losing the eclectic mix of little shops etc. As a local for 27 years, the plaza was always a fun place to walk around and shop, its losing that desire for us locals. When I have people in town and I want to bring them wine tasting , I bring them to the winery to get the full ambiance of whats its all about, not to the plaza tasting rooms. I understand they don't all have a tasting room on site, which is why Enoteca works in my opinion. I understand all want to make money and attract people to their wines, but don't lose the towns special feeling in the process. I see bus loads of tourists in our future, coming here just to get drunk on the wine tasting loop around the plaza, and others thinking lets pass on Sonoma, its just all tasting rooms, nothing much else. There has to be a better way? I am sure something can be worked out.
Carol Page March 14, 2013 at 03:41 PM
I agree with Bridgene Raftery because the wine tasting businesses do not attract locals. I actually live in Glen Ellen but am in Sonoma for a lot of personal business. And we enjoy the restaurants in Sonoma, as well. Shopping or even window shopping is becoming limited around the Plaza, as the wine businesses take their place. Some families come up for the history and do not find those outlets offering tastings particularly appealing. Placing limits or restrictions seems to be an approach. We do not want Sonoma to become similar to Napa because Sonoma has its own special appeal: that is, a small town with history, small shops, good restaurants and a relaxed ambiance that is unlike any other town in Northern California!
Lee March 14, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Here's thereal issue, that almost no one mentions: IT'S THE RENTS! They are so high on the squares, that those quaint little shops cannot possibly stay in business... Only by serving & selling Alcohol can you pay your rent, and believe me, if it was not for the recurring revenue from wine club sales, most places would not be able to make it.
Fred Allebach March 15, 2013 at 12:21 AM
Wine is the primary driver of the economy here, all the rest is contingent on it. It seems there will always be pressure to Napafy Sonoma, as the money is there, people like to get drunk in a classy fashion, and anyone with the wherewithal would like to get in on the action on the business side. The best the city can do is try to keep it to a reasonable level, find some kind of balance. As things stand now it already is wine, wine, wine, tasting, tasting, tasting. When you live here you get tired of it.
richard vandenbrul March 15, 2013 at 12:41 AM
I live out of state where we have "Squares". I purchased a condo in Sonoma within walking distance of the wine tasting rooms,restaurants and shops. Over 40 years ago I visited Sonoma and tasted wine. It has been about wine ever sense. Placing limits on wine tasting business is like placing limits on air!
Danny Fay March 15, 2013 at 04:29 AM
I own and operate a wine tasting room on the plaza. I also live on the plaza and spend probably 90% of my life within the downtown plaza. I grew up in Sonoma and graduated from Sonoma High School. I am a board member on 2 Sonoma Valley boards (mentor alliance and vintners and growers). I've spent decades witnessing the battle between local residents who push for peace and quiet and local winery proprietors who push for visitorship to create direct sales revenues. There will never be a resolution, because there is no parallel between the two parties main goals. The reality is Sonoma Valley is an expensive place to purchase land. Not all wineries can afford acres of vines to host their guests. Therefore, a boutique wine bar, lounge, tasting room downtown is the next best option. Are these tasting rooms replacing empty storefronts? Yes. Are these tasting rooms replacing Scandanavian gift shops? Yes. Are these tasting rooms generating more foot traffic and visitorship to the plaza? Yes. Are these visitors spending more money and generating more city sales tax? Yes. Are those taxes paying for the city services that protect, build and sustain the beauty and charm of Sonoma and its residents? Yes. Does Sonoma operate in the black? Yes.
Danny Fay March 15, 2013 at 04:31 AM
As painful as it is, local residents need to except the fact that tasting rooms on the plaza are a positive part of the Sonoma community. Local residents should embrace and support local vintners like myself who are products of this community.
Bradley March 15, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Sonoma and Reclaiming its Rightful Place in the Greater Wine World. As a nationally experienced, advanced Sommelier who moved thousands of miles to be in winecountry I am baffled speechless at how almost everyone seems to be oblivious to the more obvious elephant in the room. The question some of us ask from a much, much broader world view is: Has the historic town of Sonoma been robbed and repressed of its birthright and rightful place as one of the World’s most premier, eminent “Wine-towns?” Do the towns of Bordeaux, Florence or Mendoza consider such actions or handful of some locals have their heads so far stuck in the sand so far as not seeing the economic reality of what they are? Did everyone else miss or conveniently forget the vast number of vacant, depressing commercial spaces that littered and soiled the plaza’s image and feel after 2008 before all winery investment? One could easily feel that the town of Sonoma, the California birthplace of modern wine, has been kidnapped quietly decades ago and held in some kind of cage, stolen away from its proper and rightful place as one of the world’s top five or ten wine-towns. It is like locking up Jimi Hendricks, Bach or Frank Sinatra and hiding them away from the world stage forever for one’s personal home entertainment while all the while depriving the naturally talented performer from their true potential and place in the world and the depriving the rest of the world and culture of their gifts.
Bradley March 15, 2013 at 05:14 PM
Urban Tasting Rooms: Reduction of Drinking and Driving Overall; Preservation, Reinvestment and Renovation of Nearby Historic Buildings; and Vast Infusion of Additional Revenue to All Surrounding Businesses. Guests now come to the Plaza; check into tiny B&Bs or small hotels; and walk about to taste wine instead of driving, enjoy restaurants, local cheese, chocolate and boutique shopping rather than driving around the country road between tastings. While many older generations I knew never drove anywhere without a drink in the hand in the 1970’s, many younger generations are terrified of drinking and driving at all and prefer to park and do their tasting on foot near where they lodge. Kind people are sinking half a million dollars or more into B&Bs around the plaza to renovation and restore them. Many restaurants and boutique are experiences more traffic and higher-end purchases. The town is receiving the tax revenues to meet its budget. It all sounds like a perfect little economic ecosystem exempt of a otherwise contrary national and world economy. What could possibly go wrong? Well success it sounds like.
richard vandenbrul March 15, 2013 at 05:46 PM
Up State New York which has been in an economic depression has embrassed wine. They produce a lot of very good wine in the Finger Lakes. They have quaint towns like Hammondsport which like Sonoma is built around a square. New York State has built a facility dedicated to wine and food preparation in Canandaigua. The region has embrasssed wine as a way of creating prosperity and jobs. One of the large corporations which has purchase several California wineries is Constellation Brands which is headquartered in Canandaigua. Change is inevitable and wil come to Sonoma. Sonoma is a jewel in the California crown. It is just evolving in a new direction. The region will continue to attract ousiders because of the wine, beauty and opportunity to get away for a dining and wine tasting experience in Sonoma. Also, there is "gold" in them thar hills! Enjoy!
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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