California Brings On the Winery Tasting Room Silliness

When it comes to alcohol, digressing into silliness isn’t uncommon. On the one hand, the stuff can get you drunk and you can do silly, stupid things. But on the other hand, the stuff is the source of huge amounts of tax revenue, it is among the most heavily regulated substances in the country, and there are entire departments of government devoted to overseeing how alcohol is made, distributed, sold and drunk.

Put that all together, mix in a little COVID-19, add a dollop of historic economic pain and what do you get? The rule in California that winery tasting rooms may again open up as long as they serve full meals with the wine tastings.

Surely this rule on opening up California winery tasting rooms was developed with little or no thought and discussion. Surely it was a condition of opening tasting rooms that was developed by a committee made up of plumbers, horse trainers, and pro hockey players. Little else could explain the stupidity behind this rule. Wait….I take that back. Having a combination of plumbers, horse trainers, and pro hockey players surely would have created a more rational outcome. It must have been teetotaling economists and health bureaucrats that made the meals-with-wine-tasting rule.

You really have to ask, how is public safety served by winery tasting room personnel not merely interacting with visitors by bringing them their taste of wine, but then also again interacting with them to bring them their plate of pumpkin gnocchi with parmesan and truffle shavings? (Pinot Noir or Syrah?)

And consider the plight of Napa Valley tasting rooms. It is illegal for Napa wineries (according to County ordinance) to serve food, giving them the choice of breaking County law or a state order if they want to finally open their doors and start doing business again. Personally, if it were me, I’d go ahead and break the state order. But of course, I don’t have that decision to make.

Chuck Wagner does, however.

Wagner is the founder of famed Caymus Vineyard in Napa Valley. He’s gone ahead and sued California Governor Gavin Newsom and the state’s chief public health officer, Sonia Angell, claiming that California not allowing wine tasting rooms to open for normal tasting (sans meals) is a constitutional violation—specifically his equal protection and due process rights.

The issue will get resolved before this case is ever finished. Mr. Wagner’s lawsuit will easily take years to complete. My bet is that within a month the requirement to serve meals at tasting rooms will be rescinded. This kind of stupid doesn’t hold up to well in the face of rational, economically deprived, smart human beings simply responding with a hearty “fuck you, I’m pouring”.


11 Responses

  1. Jim Bernau - May 31, 2020

    Tom, love your clarity. Great to have you here in Oregon.

  2. John Skupny - June 1, 2020

    Chuck Wagner’s lawsuit will likely set back the opening of Napa wineries a couple weeks, at least. There was a group of brighter minds negotiating with both Napa County and the Governor’s office, but the State will likely want to move more cautiously and slowly, now, so as not to give other groups the green litigious light. We are ALL suffering the effects of lost business but this lawsuit is a bullying tactic that will back-fire on us all. It is a real disservice to all the wineries in Napa Valley.

  3. Tom Wark - June 1, 2020


    I don’t think it will backfire. The state will not be holding up biz openings due to lawsuits that have been filed. There have been numerous lawsuits filed in numerous industries over similar issues. The state is being cautious and in doing so, making some questionable decisions…such as the meals in tasting rooms. But, as we always do, we’ll see.

  4. Wendy Day - June 1, 2020

    John Skupny, I share your concerns about this lawsuit. Every week I feel optimistic about getting a green light, and then we get nothing. It’s wearing me down.

    Tom, I just got off of a Zoom call with a few other wineries in the area. Apparently the County is going after the “fuck you, I’m pouring” people. Right now it’s only phone calls threatening winery licenses. I wish our County would make some kind of concession on this food requirement…the Governor’s office has much bigger problems to address than ours.

    And Tom, we all miss you here!

  5. Julius - June 1, 2020

    The entire premise of restricting wine service reopening to only properties offering food service is absurd. Proper food service requires food preparation and qualified staffing. Only the upper echelon of small winery businesses have a chef on staff, fewer still have the facilities for compliant food preparation, and even fewer could afford to have a caterer provide foods for their clientele on a daily basis.

    Food service complicates the transfer environment immensely. Tasting rooms can be far more sanitary than restaurants, and have far fewer problems with staff to customer contact. Tastings and sales are among the more benign forms of hospitality, where in most instances a bar creates ample social distancing and protection.

    It is time for our decision makers to develop some common sense, fast track the re-opening of the low contact businesses and trust that these operations will embrace sensible standards to operate responsibly.

  6. Tom Wark - June 1, 2020

    We miss you too, Wendy. Tons.

    Regarding the food, if it were me I’d happily relent to their demand, so long as someone can explain the reasoning behind the “must-serve-food” policy. It actually makes so little sense that I’m able to believe that it was put in place by someone thinking they were doing wineries a favor; by someone who wasn’t going to let any wineries open, but then decided, “sure, OK, you can open as long as you abide by the same rules as restaurants must follow.”

    Miss ya…

  7. Peter Ricci - June 2, 2020


    You are building a great case for all of us becoming libertarians. Government is not working at every level, irrelevant of party affiliation.

  8. Helene - June 2, 2020

    Hmmm, yet again.

    Back in the old(er) days when we had children at ‘school’ (I think the American term is ‘High School’), there was a rule at THAT PLACE, a.k.a. a rather well known public school, which had both a school Pub and a Wine Society, where boys between the ages of 16 and 18 were required to have parental permission to visit the Pub (on the giant Parental Bill, as it were) and were required to have ‘substantial food’ with their allocated 2 halves (of beer or cider or small glass of wine) per day. Which in the ‘lingua franca’ of that particular school meant ‘a large bowl of Chips (fries, I think)’ or a bowl of soup or even a sausage roll. Crisps (Am. chips) or peanuts did NOT qualify. The Pub was only open between 4pm and 9pm and a maximum of two drinks per day per boy. After the age of 18, the boys were allowed to drink whatever they wished (but, at least in our case, not on the Parental Bill!) Ah, and the Pub, as it were, was managed by a retired Police Sergeant, so there was no slacking off the Rules.

    Our ‘little guy’ rarely even bothered, much; he waited for Mumble and Pappy to turn up for a Sunday lunch out and share a decent bottle of wine, with much better food.

    There is, however, something to be said for allowing young peopple to experience rational consumption in controlled circumstances. Drinking then becomes part of eating and socialising, not in a ‘drink-to-get-drunk’ culture. At least in the UK, in the middle and upper classes, there is not too much ‘drink’ or ‘take dope or cocaine’ just to get high.

    By the time the children finish Uni they have pretty much their parents’ alcohol consumption habits.

  9. Mike Milat - June 2, 2020

    I enjoy your articles,but did you need to end with the last four words? I guess I am just getting old. Adios to reading your blogs again.

  10. Larry Schaffer - June 2, 2020


    Thanks for taking this topic on. In an attempt to give the wine industry a ‘lifeline’, the state and the ABC have created a ‘muddled’ situation rife with additional ‘loopholes’ that make it challenging as best to meet the needs of our customers.

    There are many in my area that have taken the steps to reopen by adding food service to their offerings, and I applaud them for doing so. Some of these steps have been major; in other cases, wineries are making it happen ‘any way that they can’, offering food that is pushing the boundary of what a ‘bona fide meal’ is. And that is one of the biggest issues here – ‘vague’ definitions.

    I have the greatest respect for restauranteurs and those in that industry; I did not get into the wine business to emulate them in any manner and do not want to do so now and am hopeful that this ‘mini phase’ will go away shortly and that we’ll be open to open in earnest, as a wine tasting room and not a restaurant, following all social distancing guidelines required by the state and the ABC.

    And the consumer remains ‘confused’ about these issues as well. In our little town, you have wineries that are just offering bottles and orders to go like mine (no one is allowed in – just at the door); you have some that are offering various types of food service; and you have others that remain closed for the most part.

    Not only has Chuck Wagner filed his suit, but there are over 30 regional wine associations that have been battling for the reopening without food, as has the Wine Institute. I am hopeful that the current lawsuit does not move things backwards (I really believe they will not) and that we will get back to somewhat of a ‘business as usual’ situation sooner rather than later.


  11. Robert P Behlendorf - June 2, 2020

    Remember in November who your friends are. Those pulling the strings today are certainly not friends.

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