The Wine Industry Should Fight: Lessons from Sonoma

fightI always had a pretty good feeling that the City Council in the town of Sonoma would do the right thing where the fake issue of “too many tasting rooms” around the Town Plaza was concerned. And they have.

Monday the Sonoma City Council voted 4-1 to not limit the number of wine tasting rooms on and around the Sonoma Town Plaza. It was a pretty forceful display of common sense. However, the way the issue was raised, discussed, debated and ended provides some important lessons for people working in the wine industry as well as for individuals living in a town where a prominent wine industry is an important part of the civic fabric.

Lesson #1:Noise-Making Is Not An Indication of a Movement
The people suggesting that Sonoma limit the number of tasting rooms did a good job of making noise through editorials and by garnering newspaper coverage. However, their numbers were very small. We know this because the City Council obviously felt no pressure to dismiss their claims. The other hint was that every time the issue came up in the media, the same person gave the “no more tasting rooms” side of the story.

Lesson #2:
Beware of Well-Spoken Know-Nothings Posing as Experts
Most people are not experts in any given field. So, the chances are that when they speak up about something, they’ll be doing so without the facts at their disposal or a real understanding of the issue they are trying to address. However, they may be well-spoken and those who also have no understanding of the issue maybe be inclined to listen to them as authorities. This was decidedly the case in the Sonoma Tasting Room debate. Those seeking limits on the number of tasting rooms around the Town Plaza made wildly stupid claims about the “cache” of the wine industry, about business trends in the wine industry and even about wine making that didn’t match reality. But they said them in a well-spoken and articulate way.

Lesson #3
The Success of the Wine Industry in Sonoma, Napa and Other Locations Opens It Up as a Scapegoat
The proponents of limits on Sonoma Tasting Rooms were clearly concerned that the town of Sonoma had changed over the years and had taken advantage of the attraction the town held for wine lovers. Why this change had come about is a complex question. But these people decided it was the wine industry’s fault. This led in turn to accusations of harm brought about by the wine industry. It was accused of causing higher rents around the plaza and of causing drunks to hit the roads. None of this is true. However, it’s clear that any and all accusations had to be directed at some entity. The Wine Industry was the most convenient.

The lesson the wine industry should learn from all this is that the minute it finds itself attacked for reasons it cannot be actually responsible, it needs to fight back immediately. It needs to point out the fallacies in the attacks. It needs to push back. It did that in Sonoma successfully.

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5 Responses

  1. Roger Beery - March 18, 2014

    Your first point is a very important one. I spent many years as an elected school board member. This was one of the first lessons I learned…Small vocal groups or people can appear much more like a movement than they are. Folks that are happy with the status quo and have no vested interest are often silent and disinterested in a fight….

  2. Tom Wark - March 18, 2014

    Thanks Roger.

    Your point is very well taken.

  3. Richard - March 18, 2014

    Thanks for this write up – completely on the mark. Unfortunately another issue will arise again with the same vocal minority – who knows what that issue will be? One would think that the defeat on limiting hotels in Sonoma would have been enough to discourage the “defeat wine” idea, but it was not. So, if either of these issues can be resurrected in any way, shape, or form, it will be done. It may come to another ballot initiative that will be a huge waste of taxpayers money, but that is, unfortunately, the way Sonoma works… (and for those saying “yes, that’s Democracy in action – probably true – but what is Democratic is not always right and what is right is not always Democratic – the US is/was a Republic for that very reason).

  4. tom merle - March 18, 2014

    This situation nicely illustrates the vulnerability of the free market. Except for broad zoning restrictions that don’t get down to the fine grained uses, tenants from a certain industry have every right to create suicide by going against the dynamics of the commons. There will come a time when saturation is reached and each tasting room’s revenue will start decreasing and leases will be ended. But let the marketplace sort it out rather than the heavy hand of government. Also, wineries with just tasting rooms don’t undertand that visitors are coming to winecountry primarily to visit and tour wineries not just sample the vino.

  5. Bill Langley - March 19, 2014

    As a former resident of the town of Sonoma I’d like to add some perspective to this. The expansion of wine bars is naturally filling a void that has formed over time by an accumulation of Sonoma’s commerce-stifling policies. I would, honestly, like to see other businesses fill some of those downtown spaces. However, with Sonoma’s ridiculous big-box rules, traffic issues, and hotel restrictions, no other so-called “qualified” small businesses could ever justify the rent. Sonoma is quite simply a town in denial. Despite being one of the closest wine destinations to the Bay Area, some of its more vocal residents and representatives keep trying to protect some undefinable charm one would normally associate with a small farming community in Kansas. Well Sonoma, you’re not in Kansas anymore and if you don’t wake up soon Napa, Healdsburg, and even Petaluma will eventually suck the life out of you. YOU ARE A TOURIST DESTINATION. The faster you recognize this the better. However, if you continue to botch up events like your ill-fated film festival and Jazz+ you may end up as a “pass-thru” town. You should welcome wine bars or any other businesses that are willing to risk the anti commerce nonsense that has become a part of your reputation.


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