Know-Nothings and Demagogues in Sonoma Wine Country

KnowNothingI keep coming back to the issue of wine tasting rooms on the Sonoma town plaza, I think, because this “controversy” that continues to brew in this fine town highlights two of the things I truly detest about local politics: Know-nothings posing as authorities and demagoguery masquerading as reason.

The concern among some that there are “too many” tasting rooms on the Sonoma Plaza has caused these two very distasteful things to collide and fold up upon one another and exhibit #1 is this editorial in the Sonoma Sun:

Sonoma Tasting Bars: From Cachet to Cliche—By Larry Barnett

To read this disingenuous, deceptive and duplicitous editorial, one would think the author possesses a real concern for the wine industry and wants to warn us that if there are too many tasting rooms on the Sonoma Plaza then a ” jaded public will seek out deals and low prices and boom will go bust like it always does”. The fact is, the author has no concern for the wine industry as a whole, let alone the Sonoma Valley wine industry.

More importantly, even a glancing read through this thing demonstrates Mr. Barnett has no sense of the history, economics or structure of the wine industry. It marks him as a Know-Nothing posing as an authority. And his use of the term “Tasting Bar” rather than the more common and meaningful term “Tasting Room” marks him as a demagogue.

Try, also, to measure the length and depth of the insult that Mr. Barnett flings at wineries and winemakers when in this paragraph he tries to describe what winemaking has become: 

“Talented winemakers were [in the past], of course, essential, that is until laboratory wine chemistry blending became the secret formula behind brand success. Parlaying taste components within computer algorithms let anyone with enough money blend award-winning wines.”

Not only does this description of what it takes to make fine wine demonstrate a near perfect lack of knowledge of winemaking and the wine business, but it reveals his contempt for winemaking and the wine industry in general and lays bear the lie that is his supposed concern for the wine industry he seemingly wants to save by putting limits on wine tasting rooms around the Sonoma town plaza.

But if you wanted real a demonstration that Larry Barnett has no clue whatsoever of the dynamics the wine industry or the most basic conception of the economics of wine tourism, all you need to do is read this paragraph from the editorial:

“The introduction of the wine bar on Sonoma Plaza eliminates the need for a public winery. No castle, no tram; just some barrels in a warehouse, a sexy vanity label plus an expensive lease does the job. The public no longer needs to search or travel, simply amble down the sidewalk and hit five or six tasting-room-wine-bars in a half-block. Cachet, it turns out, is easy to sell. Wineries have long since become wedding event centers, and lucky for those who have. Paying off loans on castles and trams takes big money and big crowds.”

Yes, the 20 or so wine tasting room around and off the Sonoma Plaza are going to make all the amazing wineries up and down the Sonoma Valley desolate and without visitors. Yes, well done, Mr. Barnett. Fine analysis. This bit of insight must surely explain why not a single winery located away from the Sonoma Plaza attended last weeks meeting of the Sonoma City Council and Planning Commission to complain that all these tasting room around the Plaza were about to put them out of business. Not a single one testified to this.

Demagogues and know-nothings are dangerous people. They practice deception and call it “reasonable debate” and “needed input”, when instead what they offer is confusion and distortion. You read this editorial and you have to ask two questions:

1. Did Mr. Barnett think no one was going to read his writing?

2. Are the editors at the Sonoma Sun so lazy the couldn’t find anyone with even an ounce of authority to pen a piece opposing more tasting rooms.

I don’t live in Sonoma any more. But I still care deeply about that town. I sometimes wish I did still live there though because I would relish having the bona fides of residency to stand up in town meetings and reveal this kind of know-nothing demagogue for the charlatan he is. Unfortunately, if there are unnecessary limits placed on businesses around the Sonoma town plaza, it will be due in part to the ruckus raised by folks willing to believe this kind of demagoguery.

12 Responses

  1. David Graves - March 3, 2014

    Some Barnett background would be useful. The balancing act here is not about wine “bar”/no “wine bar”; rather it is retaining enough local-serving businesses around the square to avoid its becoming another Carmel or a tourism theme park, while still making the visitor experience interesting. If Barnett were interested in say preserving ag land, he would be in favor of the “wine bars”, because it reduces the traffic footprint (see reference to ambling) and the possibility of placing winemaking in locations with water, wastewater and power close at hand e.g. 8th St. East.

  2. Flyguy - March 3, 2014

    I don’t’ agree with Larry on this one. Maybe not on most issues…But for the record: He is a former successful B&B owner in Sonoma, website designer and was the Mayor of Sonoma some years ago. So he does have lots of experience of the local scene and the visitor business. Most Sonomans don’t patronize wineries except when they have out of town friends or relatives along. They don’t buy wines from them either, except on a deep sale or with a local’s discount. Unless they are in the business, they have very little knowledge of winery operations or the industry.Most view wineries and vineyards as a cute backdrop and an enhancement of home sale prices until something happens next door. Then they get stupid and loud. Way it is.

  3. Tom Wark - March 3, 2014


    The thing is, there is no interest in wineries where Mr. Barnett’s editorial is concerned. Additionally, it has been pointed out that there are at least 17 women’s clothing stores surrounding the Sonoma Plaza. Clearly this is too many and requires a stop be put to them.

  4. Karl Laczko - March 3, 2014

    Definitely Larry Barnett, who apparently dabbled on Twitter for a month or so last year under @barnettsonoma and was twice Mayor of Sonoma. That alone should be warning for anyone!

    The Sonoma Valley Sun piece is lost on me; 5 rambling paragraphs on dubious wine history before 1 on “wine bars” and a half-done summary that doesn’t have a point.

    It is a badly written and pointless article, but I’m not sure it deserves the over-analysing and demonizing that it’s got here.

    Then again, if you’re from Sonoma maybe it does.

  5. Bree - March 3, 2014

    Sonoma Square has not been for the locals for a long, long time so let’s cut the bull. It has been tourist centric for at least the last 20 years. If it wasn’t for the tourists Sonoma would still be the wonderful little town we used to love – when we would actually visit the plaza on a regular basis. When are we going to complain about the ice cream stores. Do you realize that there are THREE!!!! ice cream related stores on the same side of the plaza, another close by that serves gelato and within one block two others!! How outrageous – what poor example are we creating for our children. Where are those that demand to control our food intake?? This horrible situation will create obese children and adults. Shame on Sonoma!!!

  6. Dan Lee - March 3, 2014

    Hey, Wavey, lay off of Carmel, I own a bunch Disney stock!

  7. Tom Wark - March 3, 2014

    I had no idea….Indeed, the proliferation of Ice cream mongers is a travesty and must be stopped. What do you think? limit it to two?

    • Dan Lee - March 3, 2014

      Kids and geezers dropping ice cream on the sidewalk with all the dogs around, it’s not good for business.

  8. John Kelly - March 3, 2014

    My wife and I moved to Sonoma in 1989 and it has changed SO MUCH since then! Not the small turnover in storefronts. Not in new construction – there has been hardly any in the downtown area since we got here.

    No, the big change has been in the large increase in the number of NIMBYs and narcissists who try to cloak their narrow self interests behind some transparently false narrative of concern for the greater public good.

    Those of us truly committed to preserving Sonoma should demand that the City Council place a limit on the number of these folks living in this town.

    • Bree - March 3, 2014

      John, so agree. I wonder how many of the NIMBY’s came because they were tourists and decided what a great place this was and now don’t want their “ilk” about. Horrid ice cream on the streets… sticky…. dirty…. not historically accurate!!!! Of course, we could be very accurate and go back to dirt streets and keeping cows in the barracks!

  9. Afternoon Brief, Mar. 3 : WIN Advisor - March 3, 2014

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  10. Richard - March 3, 2014

    Have said this before – this is a tempest in a teapot! Wake up Sonoma and get with the program. Napa town realized 15 years ago that they needed to do something and did it – now, for better or worse, Napa is a real tourist destination. Sonoma is still a whiney little backwater wondering what went wrong. The very folks complaining about wine and tourism are the same people who moved to Sonoma for same. Stop your belly aching and make Sonoma a real destination for folks who are interested in your little piece of heaven! Sorry, all you Sonomans who want it to be like it was – not going to happen – Sonoma was never Mayberry (as I have said previously) and it’s not now. Wake up and smell the coffee and stop your whining.

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