Influential wine writer Liza B. Zimmerman asks a question that Wine and Water Watch has been trying to find an answer to for several years: “How many tasting rooms are too many? “
“Is Sonoma overdoing the number of tasting rooms in the town center?”
Her investigative report (November 2017) found that many wine industry representatives refused to speak with her when she asked such tough questions.
“According to recent Sonoma City Council meeting notes, there are currently 26 wine tasting facilities in the Sonoma Plaza the other seven are in greater downtown and are wine and bar taprooms – whereas in 2012 there were only 17. This represents a 35 percent increase in five years, according to the City Council. What is more, rents for retail space in the area have been inching up from the $2-$2.50 range per square foot to approximately a whopping $6 in the zoning district in the last year.
“Rents have spiraled upwards to such a point that the interesting, affordable stores that existed even 10 years ago cannot generate a positive cash flow today,” said Jeanette Fung the owner of Sox de Vine, a gift store, in an email to City Council members. “Tasting rooms don’t have that issue because their goal is to sign up wine club members.”
According to Liza, many of the tasting rooms have really turned into glorified bars.
Clients of Rob McMillan, the St. Helena-based executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s (SBV) wine division concludes – in a September SVB report called Is Opening a Downtown Tasting Room Smart? – that “The tasting experience is more like a bar and visitors neither joined the club or took wine home.” He adds that, “In truth, urban tasting rooms are a relatively new phenomenon and the jury is still out on their true effectiveness.”
“From polling wineries over time, the conversion rate of visitors into the wine club in a downtown tasting room isn’t as high when compared with [when they visit] the tasting room at the winery. It is a different experience,” he continues. He adds that a moratorium on tasting rooms should certainly be considered “Because land-use and sensible zoning can have a positive impact for everyone in a community, including wineries.”
The town of Sonoma – which had approximately 11,000 residents in 2016 – is hardly alone in struggling to balance the needs’ of locals and tourists. Healdsburg, a half an hour north in Sonoma County, suffers from the same problem and the northern Napa Valley hamlet of St. Helena has long been a wine Disneyland offering little of use or interest for locals. The situation is even worse in Santa Barbara County – which was hard hit with tourist fallout from the 2004 movie Sideways – further south.