Healdsburg again ponders restricting the number of tasting rooms in town

wine party

Comment from article:

Food + Wine = More Wine, please.

Reality is: Sonoma and Napa counties no longer engage in “Wine Tasting” … wineries make far more revenue from “long duration drinking” paired with food.  Sit tourists down in your tasting room or serve them “wine and food pairings” at a table.  In addition to revenue from selling the food and a case or two of wine, it’s only natural for people to linger longer when comfy… with nice views and good music… and then order just one more bottle of wine to enjoy before heading on down the highway.

The Healdsburg Police stats on drunk drivers clearly demonstrate that long-duration drinking – with food service – leads to inebriated drivers.  The majority of impaired drivers had been at restaurants or private homes where food is served. Meal service at wineries, whether during the day and especially through the cocktail hour and until 9:30 pm, will not reduce the impairment of drivers who drink then drive on our narrow, rural roads.

Dinners at wineries on rural roads are public safety nightmares; locals refer to the hours between 9 -10:30 pm as “Russian Wine Road Roulette.”

Judith O.

Healdsburg again ponders restricting the number of tasting rooms in town


THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | January 30, 2016

Healdsburg and wine seem inextricably linked, but periodically the question comes up: Are there too many tasting rooms for the town’s own good?

With about 30 tasting venues scattered downtown, mostly within a block of the Healdsburg Plaza, city officials are pondering the question again.

City Councilman Shaun McCaffery sees “a clear, positive association with wine and Healdsburg,” a synergy that adds vibrancy to the downtown and benefits restaurants and food-related businesses.

But, he added, “I would say the majority of residents that I talk to do not want any more tasting rooms.”

It isn’t that the tasting rooms are being blamed for drunken driving, or alcohol-related police calls. In fact, the data presented this week at a joint City Council/Planning Commission meeting showed most drunken drivers in Healdsburg were imbibing at restaurants, bars or private residences, not tasting rooms.

And their beverage of choice was beer, according to what almost two-thirds of the impaired drivers coming out of Healdsburg in 2014 told the probation department.

Public intoxication arrests are likely fewer than they were decades ago, before Healdsburg, located at the confluence of three scenic grape growing valleys — Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River — reinvented itself as a chic tourist destination with world-class wines and haute cuisine.

Compared to the past, the 43 arrests for “drunk in public” that Healdsburg Police made in 2015 are actually an improvement, “a fantastic figure,” according to City Councilman Gary Plass,

“We had that many in a month in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we had seven redneck bars around the plaza instead of 20 tasting rooms,” said Plass, a retired Healdsburg Police sergeant. “So people are maturing a little bit.”

Yet even though police-related calls are not associated in any significant way with tasting rooms, there is a segment of the community that wants to limit them in the interests of providing more diversity or catering less to tourists and more to locals.

“They feel it’s tipped over to tourists and those interests that can afford high rent,” said Bruce Abramson, a 25-year Healdsburg resident. He said if you talk to most residents, they feel there are enough tasting rooms in town and they should be contained, so that Healdsburg isn’t known solely for wine tasting.

When the issue came up about four years ago, the City Council reaffirmed a loose guideline of allowing one tasting room per each side of a city block and approving new ones on a case-by-case basis by application to the Planning Commission. Tasting rooms that also offer food, art, or clothing tend to face less resistance.

Some planning commissioners have suggested a need for more definitive guidelines to make the one tasting room per block-face more of a hard-and-fast rule, an actual part of the zoning ordinance, in order to better limit the proximity and concentration of such establishments.

The City Council agreed this week to hold a public hearing at a later date to delve further into the topic.

“Clearly it’s on a lot of citizens’ minds. I think it will be a pretty good debate,” said Mayor Tom Chambers.

The council is also expected to expand the exercise to include businesses that offer tastings of craft beer, distilled spirits and hard cider.

The idea of restrictions that would include other alcohol-serving establishments came after Planning Director Barbara Nelson noted the growing number of craft breweries in California, virtually doubling from 313 in 2012, to more than 600 last year.

And a new law effective this month allows small distillers to offer tastings on their premises for a fee.

The trend poses the possibility of ever more diverse venues to sample alcoholic beverages, especially as Central Healdsburg, an area targeted for future commercial and residential development, builds out.

The town of approximately 11,700 population technically has 38 active tasting rooms, if wineries that offer samples are included. There are another 29 restaurants with bars in the downtown, and an additional seven bars.

Police Chief Kevin Burke said that 43 percent of drunken drivers nabbed after drinking in Healdsburg in 2014 reported that they drank at a restaurant or bar, and 27 percent said it was a private residence. Wine tasting rooms were not even mentioned.

But raw data for 2015 showed 37 drunken drivers from restaurants and bars, two from wine tasting rooms, two at the golf course, and one from a winery.

Burke noted that a few years ago there were complaints of drunken activity and rowdy behavior at wine tasting rooms associated with special barrel tasting and Wine Road events. But he said those tapered off after steps were taken to present high-visibility police officers and private security guards at the large-scale events.

“Ambassadors” also were brought in by event organizers to engage people in a non-threatening way if they were over-consuming or misbehaving.

Part of the subtext of the controversy over the wine tasting rooms is the issue of how much local government should try to dictate to property owners what they can do with their storefronts.

In some instances, said Planning Commissioner Phil Luks, there are small, irregularly shaped spaces that can’t accommodate other businesses, but are suited to wine tasting.

“If there’s an over-concentration of anything in town that I’d like to get rid of, it’s real estate offices,” Planning Commission Chairman Jerry Eddinger said, “half-seriously.”

Eddinger and other longtime residents remember a time before downtown was redeveloped when there were plenty of empty storefronts. But he said sometimes that can be better than a bad business.

Others stressed the need to strike a better economic balance.

“I really value the diversity of business and I don’t want to see only tasting rooms,” said Councilwoman Brigette Mansell.

“Diversity creates resilience,” said graphics designer and resident Merrilyn Joyce. “What’s going to happen to Healdsburg if it puts all of its eggs in the winery basket?”


Arizona couple suspected of DUI after day of wine tasting in Sonoma County


A couple visiting Sonoma County from Arizona this week went to the county jail on suspicion of drunken driving after one took over for the other behind the wheel following an afternoon of wine tasting, the CHP said.

Officers were alerted to a possible drunken driver late Monday afternoon by a concerned citizen. The citizen called 911 to say they were watching a Chrysler sedan on Dry Creek Road weaving into the opposing lane and almost hitting other vehicles, CHP Officer Jon Sloat said in a release.

The citizen followed the sedan onto Highway 101 and watched as the driver took the Arata Lane exit in Windsor and pulled into a parking lot. There, she switched places with a male passenger, and the man then began driving south on the highway, still followed by the citizen, Sloat said.

CHP officers caught up to the sedan on River Road, followed it and pulled the driver over on Hopper Avenue in north Santa Rosa, Sloat said.

Driver Danny Miller, 60, of Glendale told officers he’d taken over driving because the woman who had been driving, Cheryl Buahnik, 51, also of Glendale, had been drinking more than he had.

Miller also told officers they’d gone to wineries on Dry Creek Road and were headed to Napa.

Miller failed sobriety tests and was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Buahnik, who police said also appeared to be intoxicated, was arrested based on the citizen’s information.

Sloat encouraged drivers who spot dangerous driving to call 911 and alert officers. Such cellphone calls while driving are legal, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.