Sonoma County wineries get advantage over breweries under California’s latest public health order

Gov. Newsom’s July 13 order allows wineries to serve only wine to customers outside, while breweries, distilleries have to pair beverages with meals.|

When Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled back business activities last week to combat a resurgence of the coronavirus, wineries ended up with an advantage over other alcohol purveyors in being allowed to continue selling wine tastings outside without having to also serve meals.

There was no such break for breweries and distilleries, under the July 13 state order that applied to Sonoma County and at least 30 other counties struggling to contain the virus. Instead, they are required to provide meals along with the beer and spirits they serve outside to customers.

With indoor service halted for at least three weeks, that has forced them to arrange for food trucks to set up on their properties or vendors to prepare box lunches and meals to sell to customers. Either action places an additional financial burden on operators of area brewpubs and distilleries and a new wrinkle for their workers.

The disparate treatment is especially pronounced in Sonoma County, where scores of winery tasting rooms — an estimated 300 — are located. Those long-established businesses, which have given the area the moniker Wine Country, have been joined in recent years by about 30 breweries, a dozen distilleries and a few cideries that mainly focus on serving their craft beverages to thirsty consumers.

“It does seem to be very unfair that the wineries don’t have to have a full meal and a distillery tasting room does,” said Scott Hanson, owner of Hanson of Sonoma distillery.

Hanson, which serves an array of flavored organic vodkas, has had to resort to offering a boxed lunch from the Girl and the Fig restaurant in Sonoma for any customer that wants to do an outdoor tasting. The distillery’s Sausalito location also has a food selection that customers have to preorder.

“It’s extremely expensive and extremely inconvenient. The fact that the wineries don’t have to provide that is shocking,” Hanson said.

The disparity has left the state’s craft brewers frustrated, said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, whose members also would like to serve drinks without a meal while maintaining appropriate social distancing rules for customers.

“It’s a mystery,” McCormick said, regarding the outdoor food service requirement for craft breweries. “My confidence in the governor’s ability to issue guidance and orders — at least around our industry — is not only confusing, but at times makes no practical sense whatsoever.”

Dr. Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County health officer, said she “hadn’t even given it a thought” to the distinction between wineries and other alcohol beverage producers. Mase said she was unaware of any public health research on the coronavirus presenting a greater risk between these types of businesses when it comes to their outdoor service.

“There is some inherent sort of disconnects with some of the decisions,” Mase said of state rule-making over what is a permissible business activity. “That’s to be expected given the novel nature of everything we are doing.”

The Press Democrat contacted state public health authorities for an explanation as to why wineries are treated differently than their alcoholic beverage counterparts on rules for outdoor service.

In a statement Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health said craft breweries and distilleries are more like bars than wineries.

Although the issue in question is outside beverage service, the state health department’s reasoning in the statement from spokesman Corey Egel addresses only activities inside bars, saying there’s more “physical movement” and “social mixing” there than in other “hospitality sectors.”

The state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control classifies most cideries with the same type of operating license as wineries and they are treated that way under the COVID-19 restrictions.

Brewers and distilleries and their representatives for them said the state wine industry has a powerful voice in Sacramento to lobby on its behalf through the main trade group, the Wine Institute.

“They made the case. I don’t know if the beer or the spirits industry has the same clout or access to be able to make that case,” said Rebecca Stamey-White, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in alcoholic beverage law.

Indeed, the Wine Institute early in the pandemic wrote a white paper on guidance and protocols for how wineries can operate safely and reopen tasting rooms, after Newsom on March 15 called for their closures along with bars and brewpubs as a result of the COVID-19 threat. The institute’s detailed research paper included insight from experts such as Dr. Petros Karakousis, a professor of medicine at the renowned Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, as well as local winery associations across California.

Eventually, the rules for restaurants and beverage producers loosened. Sonoma County on May 23 allowed restaurants as well as wineries and breweries to resume serving outdoor guests, as long they served food. Later in June, those local rules were relaxed even more to include indoor dining and more flexibility. That all changed with Newsom’s surprise order last Monday, giving an advantage to wineries serving tastings outside.

Tim Schmelzer, vice president for California state relations at the Wine Institute, said his group realized “very early” in the debate that wineries had to distinguish themselves from bars or they would be lumped together in the same class with them.

The wineries argued their tasting rooms offer a different consumer experience because visitors typically don’t mingle like at a bar or inside a brewpub. Instead, they claimed they have enough land to socially distance outside with guests, who are seated far away from other parties and do not roam around to encounter other visitors, he said. In essence, the wine sector argued it should be treated like a dining experience rather than one at a bar.

“We had to teach the folks within the (Newsom) administration what a wine tasting is like to be distinguished from what is bellying up to your local tavern,” Schmelzer said, noting he talked directly to Newsom’s aides to make sure they understood the differences. “We were able to make that case.”

Already, Newsom had plenty of knowledge about wine serving and winery operations. He got his start in the wine business and remains a partner in the PlumpJack Group, owner of four Napa County wineries. After he was elected governor in 2018, Newsom placed his business investments into a blind trust and he has no authority over those assets. This week after multiple attempts, the Press Democrat was unable to get a response from the governor’s office on what role, if any, he played in allowing wineries more freedom to operate outdoors under the state’s latest public health order.

Russian River Brewing Co. has been hampered as a result of the latest order from the governor, said co-owner Natalie Cilurzo. Its downtown Santa Rosa brewpub is open with expanded outside dining since the city recently temporarily closed part of Fourth Street downtown to traffic. But its Windsor brewpub had to again close the bulk of operations, except for to-go food and beer purchases, including the large outside beer garden.

Cilurzo said the Windsor beer garden is not set up for outdoor dining, although after reopening in June after the monthslong pandemic closure its customers were “awesome” about properly socially distancing amongst themselves and from other groups. The brewery had marked various sections of the beer garden with blue tape to prevent groups of customers from getting too close.

“The beer garden is already designed for social distancing,” Cilurzo said. “Everybody was really, really great, keeping their kids close to them. We haven’t had a single incident in the beer garden.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the state’s classification for cideries operating under COVID-19 restrictions.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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