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Sonoma identity crisis: too many tasting rooms?

  • Ernesto and Diana Crespo on Monday walk through Vine Alley in Sonoma Court Shops, which is jon the historic town Plaza. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/)

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.

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