The California city of 11,000 is worried about maintaining a healthy wine/retail balance.
Is it possible to have too much wine in Sonoma? On a personal, by-the-glass level, well, of course it is. But in a city built around the wine industry, can you still reach wine saturation? When it comes to its ever-increasing number of tasting rooms, the Sonoma City Council thinks it may have reached a tipsy tipping point and is considering a moratorium on new winery outposts in the California wine haven.
According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Sonoma City Council held a study session on the topic on Monday, and though capping the number of tasting rooms isn't guaranteed, at least some changes to the current system are likely. The city current has as many as 33 tasting rooms, about one for every 350 residents, and has seen ten new tasting rooms open in the city's main historic plaza in the past five years alone. Certainly, cities with more tasting rooms exist—Woodenville, Washington with its 100-plus tasting rooms comes to mind—but Sonoma is worried about wineries driving up rents, causing the city to lose its retail and economic balance.
"The let-the-market-decide, laissez faire attitude I think has been proven to not work," local resident Georgia Kelly said at the meeting. "We need some directive on what would really be appropriate, especially for the plaza."
Interestingly, surprisingly few restrictions currently exist. New tasting rooms don't require a use permit from the city's planning commission, only a business permit, and the city doesn't stipulate to what extent a winery has to use local Sonoma grapes. Adding rules like these is also on the table.
"A moratorium is important because the whole point is to stop a rush from coming in the door if everyone wants to save their place," Sonoma Mayor Rachel Hundley said. If a moratorium is implemented, it could start as soon as October 2 and last six to eight months.
However, Maureen Cottingham, executive director for the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, argued that tasting rooms can be a lifeline for smaller wineries, not just in promoting their brand but for literally selling their products.
"The vast majority of wineries can't get distribution," she said. Obviously, wine is big business in Sonoma, so keeping everyone happy, and in business, is a delicate balance.
As a funny aside, the Press Democrat also specifically cited Councilman Gary Edward's argument against a moratorium which, as an example of the free market doing its job, pointed out that in the 1800s, Sonoma Plaza was mostly bars and brothels.
"It was the Wild West," he was quoted as saying. "The market does take care of itself. It always does in Sonoma." Though it'd be interesting to see how he'd feel if, over the next five years, ten new brothels opened up in town.