Tourists & Tasting Rooms

Blessing or the end of the world as we know it?

Story Jonah Raskin
Photos Steven Krause

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in August, Sara Lucas poured a pinot noir at the elegant, extravagantly restored tasting room of Pangloss Cellars on the Sonoma Plaza. More a salon than a tasting room, Pangloss has transformed a corner of East Napa Street with renovated stone walls, an array of intimate seating areas and a live, indoor olive tree nestled beneath the soaring, 23-foot-high ceiling. This may not be what comes to mind when people complain about a glut of tasting rooms in Sonoma.

Twenty-five-years old and a graduate of Sonoma Valley High School, Lucas says she grew up with wine on the table at home “here and there,” but most of what she has learned about wine has been at Pangloss, in the spectacular 4,000-square-foot edifice with a view out the enormous front windows at the Plaza.

“If you took away the grapes and the wine, there wouldn’t be much left in Sonoma,” Lucas says. “But it’s the beauty of this place that keeps me here.”

In those few words, Sara Lucas summarizes the dual attractions and the simmering dilemma that lately define Sonoma.

Indeed, natural beauty, along with world-class wine and food, is what brings tens of thousands of tourists to town every year. And that—depending on which side of the metaphorical Plaza you stand—is either a very good thing or a metastasizing curse.

According to Sonoma City Council Member Gary Edwards, it’s a decidedly good thing.

“Wine is our crop,” he says. “It belongs on the Plaza.” That said, Edwards admits he doesn’t usually patronize tasting rooms (or “TRs” as some people call them), although he buys reds and whites, he says, from a wine club with a TR at the end of Vine Alley on East Napa Street. Not long ago he decided to rent a property he owns on First Street East to a mortgage company rather than to a tasting room. But that doesn’t mean he’s concerned about the number of tasting rooms on the Plaza, or that he thinks they should be limited by law.

“I don’t like moratoriums on business,” he says. “I don’t even like the word ‘moratorium.’ When it comes to tasting rooms, I think that the market will adjust itself.”

Edwards isn’t the only one in town who has faith in the marketplace; there is a solid block of citizen support for the TR status quo and the revenue-generating tourist traffic it creates in the heart of Sonoma. As any number of people told me in the process of researching this article, without tasting rooms there would be empty storefronts all over the Plaza.

On the other hand, a persistent chorus of citizens in the Valley of the Moon look at the same commercial landscape and see a blight, an economic monoculture offering too much of a good thing built on the allure of alcohol. And tasting rooms, they claim, actually drive up the cost of Plaza rents, thus hurting the bottom lines of long-term Plaza retail shops, although hard evidence to support that claim is a bit thin. What many of these people say they want, or sometimes simply imply, is more regulatory control of tasting rooms, sorting the good from the bad, as it were, and ultimately a cap on the number allowed around the Plaza. A similar cap was imposed by the city of Healdsburg recently around its much smaller plaza.

The issue has achieved enough critical mass in Sonoma to warrant a special City Council study session on September 18 that will be open to the public.

Imbedded in the growing tasting room tensions in both Sonoma and Healdsburg is an even deeper, more basic antipathy to the tourist trade (and tourist vehicle traffic) that critics argue threatens the small-town charm and authentic culture of the two communities.

Until this summer, Healdsburg had “guidelines” governing tasting rooms that weren’t uniformly enforced. Then, in August, the city adopted an ordinance meant to prevent at least the appearance of backroom deals that some suggested favored insiders who were allowed to ignore the informal rule limiting TRs to one per block face. The new ordinance put teeth in that rule and was applied as well to wine bars, booze bars and craft brew pubs. Healdsburg Vice-Mayor Brigette Mansell says people flock to Healdsburg to do more than drink wine, and she resents some of the collateral consequences of the wine industry. “I don’t like the T-shirts in town that say ‘Wine Slut’ and ‘Classy Drunk,’” she told me. “And I don’t like it that the city receives very few tax dollars from the sale of wine through wine clubs since the clubs are registered outside city limits.”

Mansell also told me, “I’ve learned that tasting rooms are largely a place to advertise, and I’ve been wondering what it means to be a tourist town and how we can be sustainable.”

In Sonoma, tasting room critics have been wondering much the same thing. Mayor Rachel Hundley, who has tried to steer a delicate path between the pro and con tasting room camps, told me the city might be saturated with TRs “right now,” adding, “We might need a temporary moratorium until we figure out our wine future and how to achieve more diversity. The city is overdue for a new economic plan. Even tasting room owners are worried that the market has been diluted.”

Mike Benziger, founder of the eponymous Glen Ellen winery and an icon in biodynamic viticulture, raises a different concern about in-town tasting rooms—they drain visitors from the Valley’s mostly rural wineries.

“The town of Sonoma has made it very appealing for people to stay in perfectly nice hotels around the Plaza and not venture up- valley,” he told me. “That means they often get an ersatz, not an authentic, experience. The up-valley wineries are losing visitors and revenue.”

To which Kyle Haraszthy, the great-great-grandson of both winemaking pioneers Count Agostin Haraszthy and General Mariano Vallejo and an employee of Buena Vista winery located on the outskirts of Sonoma, compresses the up-county versus down-county argument into three words. “Convenience is king,” he told me.

Opposition to unrestrained vineyard and winery development has organized itself to some degree in a group called “Wine and Water Watch,” with the slogan “Keep Sonoma County Rural.” The group’s website reflects the belief that vineyards—once the darling crop among environmentalists—have mushroomed out of control, driven by corporate growers. Vineyards are criticized for their water consumption, although wine grapes are modest water consumers compared to almonds, cotton, pistachios and even marijuana.

And the simple economic truth is that wine grapes are California’s second most profitable crop per acre, behind cannabis.

Still, the sheer magnitude of the wine industry in Sonoma County is breathtaking. In 2015 there were about 60,000 acres of vineyards, supplying grapes for 439 wineries, which had 221 event centers with permits for about 2,300 events for more than 32,000 people, according to an analysis done by the Los Angeles Times.

Is that good? Or bad? Or both?

Longtime Healdsburg resident Merrilyn Joyce would say it’s bad. She grouses about the erosion of community, the loss of affordable housing and “hollowed out neighborhoods,” for which she places much of the blame on the wine and tourist industries. Patrick McMurtry, who grew up in Sonoma and still lives here, would agree with Joyce. He calls his hometown “Disneyland for alcoholics” and a “pretend movie set.”

Some industry experts admit the tasting room formula—places like Pangloss notwithstanding—may be a bit tired. Elizabeth Slater —who teaches wine marketing and direct sales at both Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College, spells out their limitations.

“Most tasting rooms, whether they’re in California, Texas or Virginia, tend to be the same,” she says. “I know. I visit them. I hear tourists who visit us here say they don’t remember whether they were in Napa or Sonoma.” She adds, “To be successful you have to know what the consumer wants and not provide information that will make their eyes glaze over. That happens far too often.”

Tasting rooms on the Sonoma Plaza can find themselves in a revenue bind if they don’t sell an awful lot of wine and sign up lots of new wine club members to pay the rent. Isaac Raboy, a Sonoma realtor who specializes in commercial properties and who loves wine, told me that a tasting room “with a door that opens right on the Plaza would probably pay something in the neighborhood of $4.75 per square foot per month.”

By that measure, a tasting room like Pangloss, that has 4,000 square feet, would “have to write a check for $16,000 to $17,000 a month,” Raboy says. But he quickly adds, “If it wasn’t for tasting rooms, a lot of the buildings on the Sonoma Plaza would be empty.”

Indeed, TRs help keep the Plaza afloat, though the high rents they pay also exclude many tasting rooms, like Sixteen 600, which opened a “tasting house” just off the Plaza on First Street West. Sam Coturri, 34, the son of Phil and the brother of Max, “curates” the Sixteen 600 wine experience for locals and tourists. The one-hour tastings are by appointment only, and visitors sip wine, nibble on chocolate and cheese and hang out while Sam pours all the label’s organic wines, with colorful labels made by artist Stanley Mouse.

“Growing up, I tasted every Coturri wine,” Sam tells me. “The family connection means the world to me. As my dad says, ‘You plant grapes for your children, and olives for your grandchildren.’”

So how does he feel about tasting rooms? Are they good for Sonoma? Or are there too many in town?

After a moment’s reflection, Coturri says, “There was a time when the Plaza had a ton of stores that sold stupid stuff. The best are still there. It’s the same for real estate offices. Good tasting rooms will survive.”

Before the ’90s, urban tasting rooms played a relatively minor role in the wine industry. Napa developed them before Sonoma, and for decades, pinot and chardonnay lovers went directly to wineries to taste and to buy. Not until the start of the twenty-first century—when small wineries proliferated and distribution became a problem for family farmers—did the urban TR take off.

Because visitors are now flocking in growing numbers to in-town tasting rooms, Amy Harrington is worried. Harrington is a local attorney and the newest member of the Sonoma City Council, elected in 2016 with by far the most votes in a field of four after campaigning on a platform built on her belief that, “the balance between tourists and residents is way off.” During that campaign Harrington insisted that the tourism flood “impacts us in terms of availability of housing, parking and definitely traffic.” In August she proposed that the council re-examine the city’s contract with the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau. She suggested the council consider canceling the bureau’s contract and moving it out of its city-owned office in the Plaza’s Carnegie Library building.

“When I ran for office in 2016, I went door-to-door,” Harrington told me. “People explained that they were sick and tired of the refrain, ‘the more tourists the better.’ They’re fed up with being stuck in traffic, surrounded by crowds in the Plaza, and annoyed they can’t get into restaurants. We need a countervailing force to economic incentives.”

Others would differ about “crowds in the Plaza” or restaurant reservations, but as an ex-New Yorker I know the tribulations of urban life. By comparison, Sonoma’s problems seem minuscule, though I know the urban experience is often subjective. Delhi, India, where I recently spent a week, makes New York seem problem-free.

If Harrington is new to the tourism debate, former City Council member and two-term mayor Larry Barnett is a battle-scarred veteran who funded and guided the unsuccessful effort to block the 62-room, $40 million hotel planned just off the Plaza on West Napa Street.

Today Barnett is a curmudgeon, gadfly and regular columnist for the Sonoma Sun who says he doesn’t visit tasting rooms. The best thing he can say about them is that “they’re the saviors of real estate investment around the Plaza.” The worst Barnett can say is that they contribute to the “viscious cycle in which growing numbers of tourists lead to more hotel rooms which in turn bring even more tourists, and around and around we go.”

Barnett insists he isn’t a prohibitionist, but he likes to remind friends and neighbors that the crucial thing about wine isn’t the “finish” or the “bouquet,” but rather the fact that it contains alcohol.

“Wine has a Dionysian quality,” Barnett told me. “The industry is about intoxication. If we produced grape juice we wouldn’t be a destination.”

Barnett’s words touch a familiar theme among critics of the tourism trade—that the tasting rooms attract and cultivate heavy drinkers, producing hordes of drunken tourists. That complaint is heard in both Sonoma and Healdsburg, but it isn’t borne out by the facts.

Years of Sonoma police arrest records suggest the vast majority of DUI and drunk-in-public arrests involve locals, not tourists. And police department statistics don’t reveal an increase in alcohol-related calls correlating to a rise in tourism. Tasting room operators will tell you they monitor the consumption of alcohol on premise and politely tell tourists when they’ve had enough to drink.

One tasting room proprietor told me, “Tasting rooms are not the problem, bars are.” If you count the hotels and restaurants that contain them, there about a dozen bars serving hard alcohol just on the Plaza.

Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett says there are usually between 65 and 75 DUIs issued in the city of Sonoma annually. I asked if the number is going up or down. “It goes up and down and up again,” Sackett said.

Barnett’s views aside, tasting rooms offer an experience not found in bars; America has fallen in love with wine. We love to taste it, talk about it and experience the mystery and magic of making it. While nothing can compare to the onsite experiences of tasting new releases at iconic wineries like Buena Vista or Sebastiani or Gundlach Bundschu or Schug or Benziger, there’s a lot to be said for offering a guided tasting experience—or a series of them—within walking distance of local lodging.

Half a block off the Sonoma Plaza, on Broadway, Winemaker Geordie Carr and his wife, Mieko, pour zinfandel, syrah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc at Bump Cellars, their unpretentious tasting room. Paintings from local artists typically hang on their walls and there are periodic poetry readings and monthly artist receptions open to the public.

“I worked my way up from cellar rat to cellar master to winemaker,” Carr tells me. “It has taken hard work and creative financing, mostly out of pocket.” He adds, “I like being part of the historic winemaking tradition. I feel lucky to live the California dream.”

Wine is a big part of that dream, and it’s an essential element in the economic, social, cultural and historic fabric of both Sonoma and Healdsburg. At the Cartograph Wines tasting room just off the Healdsburg Plaza, winemaker Alan Baker pours his own pinot noir and sits on the board of directors of the local Chamber of Commerce. Baker approves of his city’s tasting room cap.

“Healdsburg is caught in a balancing act,” he tells me. “To succeed, we need top-notch wines, high-end restaurants and high-end tourists. Plus, we have to preserve the landscape and the rural lifestyle that brings tourists here.”

That’s a tough balancing act, indeed, for both Healdsburg and Sonoma. If we’re not careful we could either—on the one hand—destroy the very beauty and community integrity that keeps visitors coming here and that persuades Sara Lucas, who is becoming a wine connoisseur at Pangloss, to stay in Sonoma. Or, we could—to mix a metaphor—kill the goose that lays the golden egg, demonize and discourage tourism until the economic foundation that sustains the Valley of the Moon withers on the vine.

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