Idiots Residing In the Heart of Wine Country

SonomaPlaza“A lot of people who live here are concerned it will become a monoculture of retail locations, and wine tasting and wine bars.”

This is the sentiment behind a move in my former home, the town of Sonoma, to restrict the number and type of wine tasting rooms that live on or near the town plaza. This article details what will certainly evolve into a major controversy in Sonoma between the idiots and the non-idiots.

The folks behind the effort to limit tasting rooms on the Sonoma Plaza haven’t said much as far as I can tell about the rights of property owners, about whether Sonoma Plaza-based tasting rooms have pushed out other retail operations like convenience stores or paint stores or pet stores, nor have they made much mention of the fact that without the tourism that keeps that little town alive and without the wine industry that attracts the tourists you’d have lots and lots of room for other types of stores because so much of the town plaza would be boarded up and empty.

Neither, as far as I can tell, have he supporters of bans on Sonoma Plaza tasting rooms made mention of the fact that the wine industry contributes over $13 Billion to the Sonoma County economy and provides over 50,000 jobs to the economy.

But by all means, let’s turn the heart of the Sonoma wine country, the Sonoma Town Plaza, into a maze of low-cost cigarette stores, Kinkos, and computer repair shops. That’ll kick up the tax base! And Lord knows how those folks that frequent computer repair shops like to book hotel rooms for the weekend while their Macs get fixed.

The leader of the band is former Mayor of Sonoma Larry Barnett, who said the proliferation of tasting rooms in Sonoma threaten to turn the town “into an open-air wine aisle supermarket.” I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong with that?

If the suggestion of Barnett and his band to put a cap on the number and type of tasting rooms in Sonoma are put to a vote, no doubt you’ll hear a proliferation of nasty things said about tasting rooms by proponents the proposal. However, the proposal will go down to defeat. I lived in Sonoma Valley for 15 years. The folks that live there aren’t idiots. Well, not all of them.


50 Responses

  1. Benjamin - January 22, 2014

    Well said..

  2. Erin Cline - January 22, 2014

    Well said! Remember the days when the square was full of real estate offices, no one complained then. Everything is cyclical in 10 years there will be a new trend on the square.

    • Regina - January 23, 2014

      The City Council ruled that Real Estate offices limit store front offices. Also, the tourist were in the Plaza long before the tasting rooms and this us the reason the owners of tastings jumped on the band wagon. The real idiots don’t have a clear vision of is good for continued tourismin the Plaza.

  3. Kevin B - January 22, 2014

    Yeah, I can’t understand this one either. It would be like Los Angeles being worried the movie and television industry is ruining the local economy.

  4. John Kelly - January 22, 2014

    Really good points, Erin & Kevin! But there’s people in every town that can’t seem to get over the closing of the downtown hardware store, soda fountain, grocery, pharmacy, their favorite restaurant, etc. – as though it was some personal affront.

  5. Blake Gray - January 22, 2014

    My favorite sentence from the story:

    “The city’s Police Department reported that 55 percent of first-time drunk driving arrests in Sonoma resulted after time spent at one of the city’s establishments serving alcohol.”

    Wow, where were the other 45% spending time? Nursery schools? Art gallerys? AA meetings?

  6. Larry Dutra - January 22, 2014

    The free market is a wonderful thing. It is very effiicent at determining how many of any type of retail establishments can be supported by a market like Sonoma. Trying to regulate such things would make Sonoma like Santa Barbara County, and that is not a good thing.

  7. Jessica - January 22, 2014

    Those darn Kardashians plugging Sonoma on their show. Funny. Sebastopol figured out the open market of food, wine, community and arts works – the Barlow. It’s a shame the city of Sonoma doesn’t see it as an opportunity to embrace and showcase the essence of the area and what it represents in a meaningful way. Like the pic of Evolve in the PD, so too does the town. It’s called survival and the wine industry is the area’s main anchor.
    Ahem, however, Sonoma valley doesn’t define the “other valley” wine country, says this Russian river valley girl.

  8. Richard - January 22, 2014

    Bravo Tom! I think the proponents want the Plaza to go back to a sheep grazing area with hardware stores; a butcher shop; Sheriff’s office; perhaps a tailor; etc. Just like, let me think? Oh yes! Mayberry! and sadly, Mayberry never existed except on TV… The Sonoma that some of the folks clamoring for no change and limiting wine seem, to me, not to be living in the present… The “You can’t build a hotel here!” initiative failed and suspect once hundreds of thousands (if not millions) are spent on the “no wine on the Plaza!” initiative, it too, will go down to defeat… And, Tom, as you are well aware, there is a group of folks in Sonoma who pretty much run the show and try to keep a lid on anything – we all know them, or of them, and they run the town, in my opinion, like the Mafia – well, perhaps they are slightly gentler… and they do not want hotels, wine, or tourism – continuously biting the hand that feeds them…

    • Serena - January 24, 2014

      Gosh. I was a kid in Sonoma 30+ years ago and I actually do miss the hardware store and the Creamery, and the open pastures full of mustard flowers towering over my head.

      I’m not opposed to intelligent growth – things are constantly shifting everywhere, but don’t begrudge me my happy memories. It was lovely to sit at the old fashioned soda fountain on the plaza and imagine I knew a little about what life was like for my parents in the 50s.

      Someday you, too, may be fortunate enough to look fondly back on the past. It really did happen. It wasn’t just a TV show.

  9. Sabrina - January 22, 2014

    Bravo – let me raise my glass of wine and applaud!! Sonoma square hasn’t been for day to day, real life use for at least 15 years minimum. Give me the Plaza of 30 years ago and I might visit more often. The same people who are complaining more than likely came here because of the “wine culture” – not the local hardware store or butcher. I’d rather see the tasting rooms than when every other “store” was a real estate office. As it is the small wineries can’t afford to be on the plaza. I love the “mafia” reference by Richard…. if we want to get “real!!” about history are we going to let them have their way at the Sonoma Mission Inn again? They used to be the main visitors. Or how about bringing back the XXX rated movies that played there…… that’s historically accurate too. Control nuts always cause problems!!

  10. Hugh Reimers - January 22, 2014

    Bravo – Well said…

    More articles like this please..

  11. Michael Wangbickler - January 22, 2014

    As a resident of said town, I couldn’t agree more Tom. Larry Barnett is up to his old tricks, showing himself as the true NIMBY he is. I would much rather have a thriving city center, with heavy tourist traffic contributing to the local economy, as opposed to vacant storefronts which is what his proposal would lead to.

  12. Tony W - January 22, 2014

    I am starting a fundraising drive to raise money to buy Larry Barnett’s house so that we can move him to Healdsburg. First the hotel initiative and now this….

    • joe hebel - January 23, 2014

      omg get Larry OUT – I am SO SICK of him and creating issues where there aren’t any? So nice to see that others validate my thoughts! Have a great day. . .Joe Hebel

  13. Danny Fay - January 22, 2014

    Thank you for this refreshing commentary Tom.

    You’re welcome to share a glass of our wine on me anytime in our tasting lounge. We’re open noon to 7 pm everyday on the Historic Sonoma Plaza. Cheers!

    Envolve Winery
    27 East Napa St. (Sonoma Court Shops)
    Sonoma, CA

  14. James Marshall Berry - January 22, 2014

    My office is in the Sonoma Court shops, where ‘wine alley’ is now and has been for 5 years.. Prior to tasting rooms there was no retail, but a bunch of empty shops and stores. Now when i walk to my office I see friends with jobs, tourists spending money and taxes for the city being collected. There was NOTHING in those stores before.. for 5 freakin years!. Tasting rooms did not run ‘Grandmas knitting shop’ out of town. Supply and demand will dictate how many are necessary. Let people vote with their wallets.

    • John Kelly - January 25, 2014

      When I see “Preserve Sonoma” it seems what they really mean is “Ossify Sonoma” – just saying.

  15. Mark Vogler - January 22, 2014

    Thanka for the great read. I’ve been hearing the rumblings and mumblings about “too many tasting rooms” but didn’t realize Larry Barnett was behind it. he cost the city tens of thousands of dollars – not to mention tore the city in half, pitting neighbor against neighbor – in his personal war with Darius Anderson – because that’s all it was. Now he’s starting in about the tasting rooms? he obviously doesn’t care about Sonoma and ruining friendships so much as his own ego. Larry you are no longer mayor. If you really like a small town with empty storefronts, move to Cloverdale.

  16. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Water Fight - January 23, 2014

    […] In Sonoma, the City Council is expected to decide soon whether the city needs new regulations to curtail the rise of tasting rooms and bars. Tom Wark thinks the people who want those regulations are idiots. […]

  17. Garry Baker - January 23, 2014

    I worry about Larry, i hope his business is doing ok! He seams to have waaaay too much time on his hands, or maybe he needs a different hobby.

  18. Michael De Loach - January 23, 2014

    We had a moritorium on tasting rooms in Healdsburg a decade ago. Of course now there is no such restriction. It didn’t work. Now our biggest problem is parking, but walking is good for you.

  19. Colleen Ilnicki - January 23, 2014

    Well said!!!

  20. Tom - January 23, 2014

    Unfortunately he’s taking the same simple/myopic view as the “other side”. This is a complicated issue not just an “us against them” or “don’t bite the hands that feeds you” concern. The hidden issue is unfair competition. By creating a cluster effect (hotels, restaurants, shopping, and yes… tasting rooms) you offer visitors no compelling reason to leave the town center. Convenient in a Vegas casino like way. The result is decreased visitorship to the tasting rooms and businesses without a plaza presence. It’s already having an impact in Healdsburg where the number of tasting rooms within the city limits has grown from 19 (in 2002) to 43. The downtown is choked with people, parking is at a premium, and everyone not on the plaza is taking a beating.

  21. Floyd T - January 23, 2014

    The over concentration and number (20+) of these Sonoma Plaza tasting rooms will take care of the problem without government regulation. From long observation, few patrons are actually buying bottles. Most operations are mini wine and wifi bars. Just stand on a corner on a “busy” Saturday and count how many folks walk by with a wine bottle or wine carrier in their grasp. Damn few, if any. The classic model of a tasting room is to sell bottles directly to the consumer at full mark up. Free tasting and a “glass of wine” sale is not going to pay the expensive rents on the Plaza. I say no to city restrictions. Let the free market decide. In the end, a lot of these places are going to close and turn over. The real question is what sort of businesses can survive with the high rents and feast/famine visitor flow on Sonoma Plaza? Answer: the ones that own their own buildings and bought them a long time ago. It ain’t Carmel, never has been and never will be.

  22. Tom Wark - January 23, 2014


    It’s not the case that “everyone off the plaza is taking a beating.” In fact I can point to a number of winery tasting rooms up valley from the town that are thriving. Furthermore, businesses on the Sonoma Plaza that cater to tourists have always had an advantage over those not on the plaza because people like to go to the plaza.

    The idea that we ought to limit the kinds of businesses that are on the Plaza to help up valley businesses or off-plaza businesses has a certain Soviet-style central planning quality to it. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad. But I would point out that this style of civic planning didn’t exactly create long term success where it was implemented.

    But let’s keep going. Isn’t it the case that if there were 5 fewer restaurants on the plaza, the remaining one’s would do better? Certainly getting rid of a couple supermarkets in town would benefit the remaining ones.

  23. Jake Bayless - January 23, 2014

    My gut reaction, as a former resident of Healdsburg – before it was made into AspenWest – is that calling your neighbors idiots makes you a d!ck.

    Also, one of your *supporting* commenters paraphrases the opposite rationale perfectly:

    “Kevin B – January 22, 2014
    Yeah, I can’t understand this one either. It would be like Los Angeles being worried the movie and television industry is ruining the local economy.”

    Because as the film industry is now seeing creative innovation leaving the LA area in droves, it is panicking. Can you imagine a Hollywood without film? They are.

    It turns out that Sonoma (and other Sonoma County towns) has a lot going for it – not the least of which is simply the beautiful setting and location. People were visiting SMI long before it was surrounded on every edge by vineyards and the beloved wine industry. Making sure Sonoma doesn’t become Healdsburg South doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me at all.


    • Regina - January 23, 2014

      Many agree to limit tasting rooms on Plaza. Already there is 56% of business serving alcohol.

      • Danny Fay - January 23, 2014

        Regina, you act like 5 out of 9 establishments on the plaza are brothels open until 2 am. Tasting rooms take up less than 10% of the commercial square footage on the plaza and other than Erik K. James, who has a music permit until 10:30 pm, we are all closed by 9 pm to the public.

        • Regina - January 23, 2014

          Danny, you don’t live in the city of Sonoma, so you are not aware of how manycity residents are not for more tasting rooms. Sonoma offers a diversity of establishments, let’s keep it that way. Are you for 75 tasting rooms on and near the Plaza?

          • Danny Fay - January 23, 2014

            Regina, I live above my tasting room in Sonoma Court Shops, directly on the Sonoma plaza. My office is next to my apartment, meaning I spend 95% of my current life in downtown Sonoma. I grew up in Sonoma, I’m a proud product of Sonoma, I’m involved in Sonoma non profits, social Sonoma health communities, and I support local Sonoma businesses as much as I possibly can.

            Let the free market decide how many tasting rooms should exist on the plaza, not an arbitrary number.

            What problem are you trying to solve?

            Lastly, don’t be afraid of change, it’s healthy. Sonoma will continue to progressively grow while embracing it’s charm and history of world class viticulture.

            • Regina - January 23, 2014

              Nice to know you live here Danny,. Let’s get together for coffee at Sunflowerand chat.

              • Danny Fay - January 23, 2014

                Sunflower cafe was my first employer, I swept that patio about 100 times when I was 14 years young. I’d love to meet up for a tea and conversation, my email is [email protected]. Cheers

  24. Sean - January 23, 2014

    I grew up in Tahoe City (North Lake Tahoe). In the late 80’s/early 90’s, these kind of restrictions went into effect, limits on type and look of businesses. All it did was push businesses into neighboring towns (Kings Beach, Incline Village or in extreme cases, South Shore) or into the villages of the various ski resorts (Squaw and Northstar). Now if you go to Tahoe City, which nobody does anymore except for groceries or gas, there is almost 50% vacancy and struggling businesses in the other half.

    All of this happened because a small group of loud citizens like Barnett and his little “gang” convinced citizens that local businesses didn’t need tourism to keep the local economy afloat.

    It didn’t work…

    • Regina - January 23, 2014

      Sean, this is Sonoma. So you are off your dot.

      • Sean - January 23, 2014

        I understand that nothing I say will change your opinion, just as your ripostes will not change mine. I just wanted to offer up an example with my Tahoe City analogy.

        I thought it a good one; a generally year round, upper-middle class, historic, tourist destination with a history of developmental referenda led by an unchanging, unyielding small, vocal group of locals opposed by other locals and those involved in the tourism industry. The locals, more often than not longtime residents, often clashed with the tourists and a seasonal labor force descended on the region for about six months at a time. Failed hotel referenda led to restrictions on other businesses. Sure, it isn’t exactly Sonoma (it had boating and skiing instead of wine), but that description seems fairly apt.

        If you’d like an example with a happy ending look to Napa. For years and years, people chose Sonoma, Healdsburg, Yountville, St. Helena or Calistoga over staying, shopping or generally interacting with downtown Napa. There were many vacant storefronts and despite world-class restaurants, it was pretty much a ghost town. The city council began allowing tasting rooms and more tourism-focused business downtown and now it is more vibrant than ever. While this isn’t a guaranteed outcome, the risk seems more than worth the reward.

  25. Tom Wark - January 23, 2014


    What is the negative impact that the 30 tasting rooms on or near the plaza has had?

  26. Jillian - January 23, 2014


    I’m sorry, but I’m not sure Sean is “off the mark.” Have you been to North Lake Tahoe? Have you been to Tahoe City? Probably not – and why? Because you and most other tourists are going to South shore or to the resorts and areas that have been allowed to expand like Sean mentioned. While Tahoe can arguably be called a “Seasonal” destination and Sonoma is gorgeous year round, the fact remains that tourists visiting the Tahoe area have a choice on where to spend their time and money. And what have they chosen? They areas where businesses have not been limited. They have more choices on where to stay, things to do and places to ski or shop. It’s that simple.

    So Sonoma IS similar to Tahoe in the sense that when a tourist makes a decision on where to go for their “wine country” trip and spend money, they can choose between Napa, Calistoga, Healdsburg, Alexander Valley – the options vary much more than just the town of Sonoma. That said, Regina, how do you suggest the economy be supported in Sonoma if wine is no longer allowed to grow and develop? How would you drive traffic to this town so more than the Sonoma city residents are patrons at the restaurants and businesses?

    I agree with Danny – change is a wonderful and necessary thing. We should all embrace what this wonderful small town has become and see that it remains a charming and stable place to live and grow.

  27. Donn Rutkoff - January 23, 2014

    Open air wine market. Hmmmmmmm. People who live along the East Coast spend $1000s to go to Europe, to spend time visiting, open air wine markets.

  28. Janne - January 24, 2014

    Well first off, calling the sizable portion of Sonoma residents who are resistant to more plaza tasting rooms is just plain rude and ignorant. These are your friends and neighbors, sir.

    I worked for a tasting room on the plaza for two years and consider myself extremely lucky to have benefited from the generous hourly wage and health insurance I received during my time with them. Contrary to popular belief, most of the people behind these businesses are good, hard working farmers and artisans who are trying to make a living like the rest of us. Tasting rooms certainly boost the local economy, benefiting not only wineries but other family owned businesses and local residents who enjoy some lovely restaurants and shops that surely would not exist with out the much needed tourist dollars.

    I’m also a fan of diversity. I’d like to see more small artisan shops and other amenities that enrich the lives of locals and exist to serve THEM rather than more businesses that pander to out of town guests of the city. But I feel putting a cap on the number of tasting rooms attacks the “problem?” from the wrong angle. Tasting rooms are among the very few businesses that can survive on the UNBELIEVABLY EXPENSIVE PLAZA. The cost of rent on and just off the plaza is prohibitively expensive for almost any and every other small business looking to rent in this town. Perhaps a better solution would be for the city to offer incentives to small non-alcohol related businesses or something of the like? Hit up your mayor and city council people and tell them what you WANT, rather than focusing on what you don’t want. Those who think the number of tasting rooms should be capped are already dissatisfied with the current proliferation, so in essence there’s no battle to win because you’ve already lost.

    And of course, if there are businesses that you cherish here, support them so they can stick around.

    • John Kelly - January 25, 2014

      Janne – we have had this conversation before. I am completely with you that diversity of services and attractions in the downtown area is important. We would both like to see more arts, and more restaurants. But we both know that those are tough business models to make work, even if the rents were lower.

      I have to kind of laugh at the idea of capping the number of tasting rooms, though. Where would we put any more? Other businesses would have to close, and I can only think of a couple that might be struggling. The only open storefront on the plaza right now is the former Historic Plaza Liquors/ Proof*d space – even if a new tasting venue went in there it would not represent a change of use.

      We opened our tasting room in 2005. There weren’t many other tasting rooms then. We are still here because we are selling a lot of wine. Like many others on the Plaza, we do not “give away free glasses of wine” as Regina seems to think. The outlying tasting rooms are not getting “killed” by the concentration of venues downtown – on the contrary, the vast majority of our guests have come from one of then before they get to us, or we refer them to one or more after they leave. For most folk, visiting wine country absolutely means visiting at least one actual winery building, vineyard, cave.

      Finally, the fact that we don’t see every other person on the Plaza with a wine carrier in their hands is proof that plenty of people come here for reasons other than wine.

  29. Seth Dolinsky - January 24, 2014

    Interesting take, calling people, citizens, locals… “idiots” for wanting to limit the influence of big $$ and luxury lifestyle businesses in their community… this type of divisive dialogue , though perhaps in response to a similar biased opinion, will only serve to deepen the divide

    Wine does do a lot of good for the Sonoma county economy, but also a lot of harm, from dropping water tables, disappearing forests and wildlife, large inputs chemicals… lets be a little more honest with hourselves in what we are gaining and what we are losing, then we can make better decisions

    • John Kelly - January 25, 2014

      Woah – grapes use far less water per acre than residential, so don’t lay falling water tables at the feet of the wine industry. As to disappearing forests – where? Preservation Ranch has been shut down, as well as Artessa’s development near Starwae. And “large chemical inputs”? -oh, please. Grapes use very little, the vast majority of growers in Sonoma County are committed to using less, and in fact the amount of chemical inputs identified by the Pesticide Action Network as “bad actors” used per acre has gone down steadily for at least the last decade. It helps to have real data when making decisions, rather than emotion.

      • Seth Dolinsky - January 26, 2014

        Sorry, but ive been in agriculture for many years, and see massive amount of chemicals, particularly roundup and preemergents, used on vineyards throughout the county, then the sulfur, which is usually chemically derived as a byproduct of oil refining.
        the deforestation and lack of wild space? its plain to see to those with eyes, shall I take some photos of the continual degredation of the Mayacamas east of hwy 12? seen what Kunde has done? nature is under assault world wide, and wine is for sure one culprit among many

        Once you remove vegetation, and start spraying roundup to stop weeds, you break many important cycles, soil building, insect/predator cycles, the absorbtion of water slows influencing groundwater – which, btw, vineyards do use in amounts up to 500,000 gallons per acre in the growing season

        As far as tasting rooms, again a luxury, non essential item and seems to be sponsored by those with deep pockets, and … as much as you can kid yourself, its still a drug, that can warp the perceptions of those that consume it…

  30. janne - January 24, 2014

    WORD, Seth!

  31. Richard - January 25, 2014

    I miss Marty’s and Sneakers. Can we bring those back to the Plaza, please?

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  33. Scott Woebcke - January 29, 2014

    I must be one of those idiots. I don’t care to support Sonoma boutique wineries. I don’t care to talk to snobs in the industry who only know how to regurgitate what the marketeers have told them to say.

    I’d rather not pay an inflated price for a single appellation wine because it’s simply overpriced. I am not going to subsidize uncle Tom’s real estate by drinking an inflated product.

    I think Sonoman’s in general want to have some form of commons. But the wine and hospitality industry continues to insist that the sky will fall without it.

    The dirty side of viticulture is seldom discussed. As glorious as the wine industry may seem it has a lengthy and toxic past. It wasn’t until being sustainable and organic was marketable that the viticulture vultures starting giving a damn.

    Proposing arbitrary limits of what business can and can’t run is not a good idea. But currently it seems like the Chamber of Commerce and City Council are making it easier for a tasting room to go up.

    It’s as if the city government doesn’t sympathize much for anybody but selfish wine barons.

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