Regulate Sonoma’s wine tasting rooms

Posted on September 22, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

An open letter to the Sonoma City Council:  The Sept. 18 study session on tasting rooms was very informative.  In anticipation of your upcoming October meeting, I believe that enacting a tasting room moratorium would be a prudent step, given the sharp increase in tasting rooms over the past few years which has created considerable concern among residents over the direction of the City’s character.  For reasons noted below, I also believe that the number, location, etc., of tasting rooms should be regulated and that a moratorium would provide Council the opportunity to chart a careful course on an issue that is clearly important enough to have made it on your agenda.

As cultural diversity is critical to a healthy society, few would dispute that commercial diversity is vital to a vibrant  Sonoma and its historic downtown.  Sonoma’s character has been the Golden Goose of its economy and maintaining that ambiance requires that the City, particularly its Plaza downtown, not become a boring commercial monoculture.  That was recognized when a previous Council enacted regulations limiting chain stores and real estate offices which were threatening the Plaza’s vitality.

I understand the ideology of the devout free market capitalists among you but I respectfully suggest that reality should inform Council’s decisions effecting the quality of life for residents, most of whom do not live, breathe or eat ideology.  As history teaches, the so-called free market — like many aspects of society — must be thoughtfully regulated to protect it from itself.  It was largely the business community which produced the anti-trust laws of the early 20th century that broke the grip of private sector monopolies strangling the free market.

A monopolistic dynamic also drives the tasting room boom.  As noted by several speakers on Monday, a few landlords own large chunks of downtown real estate.  They are not ‘evil,’ but their desire to maximize rents & profits has an outsized influence on the type, size and viability of businesses that shape the character and convenience of Sonoma for residents and visitors alike.  Far more than the entrepreneurial energy of businesses or individuals, these large commercial landlords effectively determine — regulate? —  commerce in downtown Sonoma.

Unlike regulation by Council, however, residents (including resident-owned businesses) have zero input or control over the decisions of real estate monopolies.  As much or more than enactments of Council, and in the absence of Council action, the unilateral decisions of commercial landlords are effectively making ‘public policy’ for residents and for local businesses struggling to emerge and survive.  Council’s hesitancy to acknowledge and address this reality effectively cedes Sonoma’s  commercial environment and character to Free Market Feudalism.

If Council is unwilling to referee the commercial game, there can be little confidence it will protect the quality of life in a town where residents pay dearly to live.  I submit that undue deference to free market ideology has been responsible for much of the fast-growing negative impacts of otherwise benign industries like tourism and wine: strangling traffic, lifeless commercial monoculture, massive tour busses, vacation rentals, etc., etc.  One is hard-pressed to cite significant concrete free-market benefits that have trickled down to residents of one of the state’s wealthiest communities which – after 182 years – still does not have a swimming pool, recreation department or (need I repeat) even a Dog Park worthy of its dogs.

As to the explosion of tasting rooms, I appreciate that business for local wineries is such that they must rely on more direct-marketing to customers to increase distribution and profits.  However, going into the wine business is a free market choice.  Sonoma residents — the vast majority of whom are not in the wine business — should not be required to sacrifice their city’s character or quality of life so that every winery desiring an in-town tasting room can have one.

I respectfully suggest that a tasting room moratorium can be written to provide Council the space for regulatory thoughtfulness without seriously harming anyone’s commercial wine ambitions.

 Bob Edwards, Sonoma

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