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Sonoma rejects cap on tasting rooms


Winery tasting room operators won a victory in Sonoma Monday when the City Council rejected an attempt to cap their numbers or force them to get city permission to open.

However, businesses that pour drinks from more than one winery or brewery will have to take an additional step before opening, the result of a council requirement they get use permits.

"They're our residents, They're our friends. They're our neighbors. They are making something here and selling it here; we should support them," Mayor Tom Rouse said of wineries. He argued against regulations any stricter than those limiting the number of special events each business could hold a year and their operating hours.

It was a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Steve Barbose, who wanted all tasting rooms to get use permits, in the minority. And it put to rest for now an issue that recalled last year's battle over the size and number of hotels in Sonoma. The debate again presented the city with questions about its core identity and how to balance the tenor of a cozy hometown and that of a very popular Wine Country tourist destination.

"I think it's a very disappointing outcome," said former councilman Larry Barnett, who led the 2013 fight to limit hotels and their expansion, a proposal narrowly defeated in a hard-fought November election.

The group he formed to press that cause, Preserving Sonoma, almost immediately turned its attention to wine tasting rooms, pushing for a cap of 30 in the historic downtown. It also called for the city to give preference on operating permits to establishments offering Sonoma or Sonoma Valley products.

On Monday, Barnett said the issue was one of safety and of controlling the spread of tasting rooms that he and others have said threatens to turn Sonoma into a one-note town.

Requiring all tasting room businesses — whether they are associated with a single winery or many — to apply for use permits would allow the city "some type of input into how widely these kinds of facilities can proliferate around town," Barnett said.

Wine industry representatives argued back forcefully.

"This is a town that's built on wine," said Richard Idell, owner of Idell Family Vineyards and a member of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.

"It's good for the town; it promotes economics and there's no identifiable problem. So what are we trying to fix?" he said.

But Sonoma resident Regina Baker said, "This is not a wine industry problem; it's a Sonoma city problem," and displayed a map that showed, by her count, that of 136 businesses on the square, 53 served alcohol.

"That's 40 percent," Baker exclaimed.

Squire Fridell, the president of GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery, responded: "It always seems as if it is 'us' and 'them.' We are 'us.' Every tasting room you see around here has a name on it. They're local people. They live here. They work here. They employ local people and they help us thrive."

"I agree with that," Barbose said. "We're all here to do what we think is best for this city. Whether we agree or not, that doesn't make you 'them'."

The council majority, though, agreed with Mayor Pro Tem Dave Cook, who said that the marketplace would determine more effectively how many tasting rooms were on the Plaza.

"There is no way you can have 60 on the Plaza and have all of them survive," Cook said.

"Nothing will ever dwarf historic Sonoma," Brown said. He added, "There's no debauchery going on around town."

The council asked staff to return with an ordinance that outlined "operating standards" for tasting rooms that limited their hours of operation to between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. and also limiting them to 26 wine club special events a year.

Sonoma is not the only local city that has weighed stricter regulations on tasting rooms amid a debate about how much to accommodate — or, as some suggest, give way before — the county's crucial wine tourism industry.

Healdsburg's City Council in 2011, after considerable debate, voted 4-1 not to impose new restrictions on tasting rooms.

A 2012 survey found that Healdsburg had about 20 tasting rooms in its downtown. By comparison, the staff report for Sonoma's Monday council meeting said there are 26 tasting rooms in the city's downtown area.

The council did not address safety concerns related to wine tasting on Monday night, and afterward, Barnett said, "Unfortunately, we are going to have to sit around and wait for an intoxicated driver to whack a pedestrian before people wake up."

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com