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Winery events revisited

Discussions return after six-month hiatus

By Chris Rooney

“We’re having the same discussion that we’ve been having for 15 years,” said Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Eric Koenigshofer as the panel met Feb. 17 via videoconference to once again tackle the debates enveloping events held at wineries.

While the topic has deep roots, the most recent meeting was the first since the planners met in June 2021, meaning some veterans of the topic were now being joined by newcomers on the commission.

Commissioner Gregory Carr, who represents Sonoma Valley, voiced his overall dissatisfaction with the increase in winery-hosted events. “It’s inconsistent with the agricultural element of our [Sonoma County] General Plan,” he said.

There are approximately double the 200 wineries allotted for in the General Plan adopted in 2008, and some 300 tasting room and event permits have been issued along the way. New tasting or event ordinances only pertain to new applicants or those altering previous applications, such as applications for expansions. Older wineries are grandfathered into current regulations.

A series of industry insiders explained that the very crux of how a winery succeeds has evolved rapidly, pointing to such things as wildfires and COVID-19 and other obstacles. They said wineries rely heavily on local sales, such as from tasting rooms and events, because traditional distribution channels have winnowed. They also said the wine and agricultural industries have successfully selfgoverned and they hear very few complaints.

Opponents pointed to the increase of events and tasting rooms as a cause for concern, as noise and traffic worsen wherever events are held.

The Planning Commission marched forward by mostly trying to pare down differences in wording between Sonoma Valley and Healdsburg-area subcommittees, thus creating a county-wide framework for new ordinances. For instance, the panel stripped away a specific stipulation aimed at groups of more than 30 people. County staff said it was best to “avoid the one-size-fits-all” approach and eliminate generalities (such as the 30-person rule), treating each applicant individually.

The commission also streamlined verbiage used to distinguish differences between catering and commercial kitchens. Planners placed even more scrutiny on the type of events that could be considered promotional. A venue used strictly to house an event will be viewed differently from a venue that incorporates product sales into hosting events, recognizing that some wineries insist renters buy their products if using their facility for an event.

The discussion bled into other agricultural areas, as it was pointed out that dairy farms and other enterprises can host events and also may insist that renters purchase their wares, such as cheeses. While not fully flushed out, the commission seemed to agree that events that include product sales would be deemed promotional, meaning they’d fall under a different set of regulations.

The Planning Commission will reconvene on the matter at a future, unscheduled, meeting or series of meetings.