The Dry Creek General Store, established in 1881, loses permission to serve alcohol

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The Dry Creek General Store, a rustic landmark northwest of Healdsburg that’s been around since 1881, at one time ran a bootlegging operation in the cellar and even managed to stay in operation during Prohibition.

But at the moment, the spigots have been turned off indefinitely and the wine bottles are gone. Not a drop of alcohol can be found inside the Old West style bar or the adjoining deli and general store, now owned by members of the famous Gallo wine dynasty.

The business, a popular crossroad on Dry Creek Road where vineyard workers, cyclists, bikers, wine tourists in limos and locals both regular and well-heeled all rub elbows, briefly had its alcohol license suspended earlier this year for two violations. That action by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control set off a chain of events that has created a bureaucratic maze and kept the place from resuming its wine and beer sales.

While the license has been reinstated, the temporary closure triggered a need for the business to obtain a use permit from Sonoma County to operate a small beverage retail establishment, something that was not required of it before.

Previously, the store was considered a “legal, non-conforming use,” grandfathered in after modern-day planning and zoning laws were enacted.

Now the owners, who bought it around 2001, face a regulatory gantlet to gain approval to resume selling alcoholic beverages at the Dry Creek General Store, which still sports its old-fashioned sign — “Cold Draft Beer” — displaying a frosty beer mug.

As part of the use permit application, more than two dozen local and state agencies and boards have been asked to identify and comment on any environmental or other concerns. The application also will be subject to public hearings with the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council on July 20, and the county Board of Zoning Adjustments, with no date certain.

It’s likely to be nine to 10 weeks — or more — for that latter hearing to occur, according to a planning department spokeswoman.

“We are working diligently with the county to obtain the use permit so we can continue to operate the store as it has been for more than 135 years,” owner Gina Gallo said in a statement Thursday. “We are looking forward to sharing our proposed improvements with the county and the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Council so we can resolve this issue and get back to serving our customers and our community.”

Ruth Wilson, vice-president of the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Council, said there has been a lot of confusion over why the store stopped selling wine and beer because the place “is a fixture. It’s been here forever. All of the residents that I know think of it as a local treasure.”

But not everyone is happy with the business. The need for a use permit has provided an opening for a neighbor to bring up longstanding complaints that include parked vehicles blocking his driveway — delivery trucks, limos and other patrons of the store — and frequent public urination in his yard.

“We understand it’s a local icon, but they’re not being good neighbors,” said attorney Rose Zoia, who is representing the adjacent homeowner, Brady Phenicie.

“He doesn’t want to shut them down. He wants them to operate properly,” she said, adding that the mass of cars near or in her client’s driveway is hazardous because it blocks the line of sight when pulling out onto Dry Creek Road.

Acting on a “complaint from the community,” the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control suspended the liquor license for almost two months beginning on Jan. 5. An ABC spokesman on Thursday said there were two violations. One had to do with the establishment not serving meals to guests in the bar — a condition of its license. The other violation was for permitting patrons to stray with open alcohol containers beyond the porch areas and large covered front area where alcohol is allowed.

The Dry Creek General Store is the only retail store and bar for miles around, although there are plenty of wineries and tasting rooms close by.

Designated a county historic landmark in 1979, its past uses are listed as stagecoach stop, feed store, residence, bait shop, barber shop, general store, eating place, bar with card room and bootlegging cellar.

The funky bar with saddles, boar and deer heads, farm implements and tools hanging from the ceiling is empty these days, but the store and deli still do a brisk breakfast and lunch business.

In a letter to the county, a representative of the store asked that they be allowed to resume selling alcohol while the use permit application is in process.

“It is an economic hardship for the business and a great disruption to customers,” Demae Rubins, a representative for the store owners, stated.

But the next-door neighbor has asked the county to deny that request, stating that there is no legal or valid reason to serve alcohol until the use permit is granted.

In a followup statement Thursday, Gina Gallo suggested that the issues can be resolved.

“We are aware of and are sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised, which is why we will be presenting changes to the driveway, parking, restrooms and more. Once complete, our hope is that the Dry Creek Store will be a shining example in Sonoma County of how best to serve the diverse needs of our customers and our community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214.

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