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A Santa Rosa wine and beer shop allowing customers to try before they buy won approval Thursday from the Santa Rosa Planning Commission.

Rincon Valley Wine and Craft Beer would be the first shop in Sonoma County to feature automated self-serve wine dispensers that let customers sample wines on tap before they decide to buy a bottle.

The new venture would be a cross between a wine shop and wine bar, and would be a departure from the time-honored Wine Country tradition of having trained professionals pour wine samples.

Instead, a sleek wine robot would do the job, dispensing 1-, 2- or 4-ounce pours of 16 to 20 wines from machines specially designed to preserve the wines for weeks.

Owners Michael Scalet and Renee Reynolds of Sonoma are behind the new venture, their first foray into the retail wine business.

"Renee and I just noted that there was a complete absence of real wine shops in Santa Rosa," Scalet said.

While there are shops like Bottle Barn and BevMo and supermarkets with shelves bursting with wine selections, the city is solely lacking in wine shops with "real customer service," he said.

Scalet, an author and wine blogger who recently returned to Sonoma after seven years in Oakland, said the dispensers are a service to help customers make better wine purchases. They are not meant as a revenue generator, but are designed to drive sales of wine bottles and discussions about wines, he said.

Shoppers put money on electronic cards, which they will then insert into the dispensers before making their wine selection. Scalet is in talks with three different manufacturers and hasn't decided on a brand yet.

Wine dispensers are becoming more common in restaurants and bars and have been credited with expanding the range of wines they can offer by the glass. The machines force an inert gas, usually argon, into the bottle, preventing oxygen from spoiling the wine.

Their use in wine shops has increased in recent years as the technology has improved and retailers have recognized the value of making it easier for customers to sample wines.

The dispensers are "all over the place" in other parts of the country, but not here, something Scalet said he can't understand.

Perhaps that's because of the costs and regulatory hurdles such businesses face. The city permit fee alone was $14,273, something he and others working on the project were "astounded by," he said.

Planner Noah Housh explained the business needed what is known as a major conditional use permit similar to what a bar or convenience store selling alcohol would require.

Craft beer sales will be handled a little differently. Because there is no way to preserve bottled beer after it has been opened, beer tastings will take place periodically, Scalet said.

One half of the 1,600-square-foot business will be dedicated to tasting and seating, while the other half will be for displaying and selling about 100 wines and 20 beers, he said. It will be located at 4927 Sonoma Highway, in a building tucked behind a gas station. The space used to house bike shop Rincon Cyclery. The shop will employ up to six people and operate from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Tasting prices haven't been set yet, but will likely run less than $1 for pours of relatively inexpensive wines to over $5 for tastes of pricier vintages, Scalet said.

If all goes well, he expects to open at the end of May.

Bottle Barn wine buyer Ben Pearson said he looked into the technology when his shop opened what was formerly known as The Wine Annex tasting room in downtown Healdsburg. He was considering purchasing the dispensers from a snazzy wine bar in downtown San Francisco that went belly up, but decided against it.

"I think it's a pretty cool idea," Pearson said. "I just wonder if the novelty would wear off after a while."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater

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