Sonoma puts hold on new wine tasting rooms

To a pair of honeymooners from Las Vegas stopping at the historic Sonoma Plaza last week, the City Council’s decision to put a freeze on new wine tasting rooms seemed odd.

“Yeah, it does, just because it’s so famous for wine,” said Jessie Sarabia, 30, pausing in front of Sonoma State Historic Park on the Plaza’s north side with his wife Hilda, 31, on a brief wine tasting trip.

Could the town that prides itself on wine-infused history and culture - as the place where the Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy planted grapes in 1856 - have too many places to sample the fruit of the vine?

In a move intended to “push the pause button,” according to a city planning staff report, the council voted 4-0 to immediately freeze a roughly four-block area around Sonoma’s plaza that already has 26 wine tasting rooms and five more in the works, with the intent to develop tasting room standards by next September.

Five years ago, there were 17 tasting rooms around the plaza, the report said, noting a 35 percent increase in them while “traditional retail” shops declined by 14 percent, from 63 to 54 spaces over the same period.

The surge in wine sipping spots has driven up retail lease rates as tasting rooms can pay a premium for their place in the public eye, the report said. In 2010, commercial leases ranged from $2 to $2.50 per square foot and are now in the $6 per square foot range, it said.

Sonoma, the site of the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule in 1846, has a history of concern about the Plaza, which surrounds a landmark city hall built in the early 20th century with four identical sides so it would not offend merchants on any one side of the plaza.

In 2005, concern over a prevalence of real estate offices prompted the council to require use permits for ground floor offices, and in 2012 the city placed limits on chain stores to preserve the Plaza’s authentic look.

Tasting rooms remained a permitted use, meaning there were no restrictions on their location. Concern over their spread emerged at a council goal-setting retreat in May and culminated in the moratorium adopted Dec. 4.

Tommi Hill of Santa Rosa, sampling a newly released champagne Friday on a couch in the Corner 103 tasting room at the Plaza’s southwest corner, said the moratorium enacted by the council had merit.

“I think it’s a good idea to limit tasting rooms,” said Hill, 66. “You just don’t want it to be saturated.”

Stephanie Van Cleave, 51, who was sharing the couch with her friend, concurred. “You wouldn’t want (the Plaza) to be all tasting rooms. It would lose its charm,” she said.

Over the next nine months, the city will wrestle with the tug of sentiment over the community’s “unique historic culture and small-town flavor” against the reality that Sonoma is “primarily a tourism-based economy,” according to the planning report.

Aside from luring wine-lovers to town, tasting rooms also generate $134,000 in annual sales tax revenue compared with a total of $773,000 in revenue for the entire downtown.

Healdsburg, which reaps $183,000 a year in sales taxes from tasting rooms, has agreed to limit them to one per block face.

The impact on Sonoma is readily apparent, with four tasting rooms in one block on East Napa Street just east of the plaza and nine in an upscale arcade named Wine Alley that features two fountains off East ?Napa Street just across from the Plaza.

The city has “changed a bunch,” said Kyle Marioni, hospitality manager at Kamen Estate Wines tasting room and a fourth-generation Sonoma resident.

“I do get the idea of stepping back for a second,” he said about the moratorium.

But the room gives Kamen, an estate winery that makes 3,000 cases a year, “good exposure” in a central location, he said.

The Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance has not taken an official position on the moratorium, said Prema Behan, a board member and chief operating officer at Three Sticks Wines. The measure addressed the group’s major concern by exempting the five tasting rooms in progress, she said.

It’s important to assess the role of tasting rooms in the community and determine “what the marketplace can and should hold,” Behan said.

“We want diversity in our retail and a rich experience for the people who visit Sonoma.”

Lloyd Davis, owner of Corner 103, said he also wants to see “a square with a balance of businesses,” but the moratorium is “going in the wrong direction.”

Instead of questioning whether there are too many tasting rooms, Davis said, the city should be asking why there aren’t more restaurants, specialty food shops, clothing stores and other retailers around the plaza.

Corner 103 buys grapes from ?14 growers and produces wine at an industrial facility on Eighth Street East. Without the sleek tasting room that opened three years ago, Davis said, he would “have no avenue to get on the market.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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