Sonoma County, often called “the other wine country,” is larger and more diverse than its better-known neighbor, Napa.
It has more wine-tasting facilities, hosts dozens of hospitality events (weddings, concerts, charity wine auctions), and has faced complaints from numerous residents upset over traffic, noise, litter, and more.
Ancillary events bring tourist dollars, so after decades of discussion, the county now plans to codify rules that will define what a winery can and cannot do—a dilemma that has faced many tourist-oriented areas over the decades.
For instance, can wineries host weddings?
Decades ago, I visited a winery (not in the United States) that was designed in a long, narrow shape. Its sole purpose was to have large lawns on each side of the building’s two separate entrances.
The hospitality director said the idea was to design a facility that could host two weddings on the same day, even at the same hour, with neither party aware the other was there.
Getting married at a winery can be elegant. Wineries can be gorgeous and can provide wine for guests (for a fee, of course), catering (fee), music (fee), and other services (fees).
Weddings can be complicated. This, said the hospitality director, was a one-stop wedding shop.
In this case, the winery produced ordinary wines that were outrageously expensive, I concluded. Then it hit me: This wasn’t a winery; it was a WINO—a winery in name only. Wine was an afterthought. It was a “wedding place” calling itself a winery.
This sort of business might not be allowed in the Napa Valley, which struggled for years trying to define just what a winery was.
After a simmering-then-boiling debate that pitted residents against the wine industry, compromises were reached that dealt with lots more than just “Can a winery do weddings?”
Questions could be knotty. Some early-founded wineries in Napa had always done things properly and shouldn’t be penalized, they argued. Many demanded to be grandfathered in.
The original debate also included questions of whether a winery could have a cafe on site. The fear was that restaurants might become more popular than the winery.
There are also questions of permits for hotels; dealing with commercial zones; parking and traffic issues (I once proposed a toll road); snacks (“palate cleansers”) at tasting rooms; concerts; art displays; and more.
That debate arose about the time Robert Mondavi proposed his “Mondavi Mission”: a museum-like facility dedicated to wine, food, and the arts. He proposed placing the building adjacent to his winery in Oakville.
Residents threw such a fit that Mondavi almost lost his right to host concerts on site, so he abandoned the Oakville site and acquired land in Napa, where he built Copia: a great idea that never took root.
The “What is a winery?” debate never really ended in Napa, and now Sonoma County faces its own set of dilemmas. With about 325 tasting rooms, Sonoma will debate various issues over several months, and the planning commission will eventually define what a winery can and cannot do.
Whatever it decides, many will be displeased.
Wine of the Week
2020 Babich Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($13): This fine producer of excellent red and white wines is located in Hawkes Bay on New Zealand’s North Island. When New Zealand sauvignon blanc was becoming very popular in the United States at about $15, the family made a stellar lower-priced wine to sell for about $10 from acreage it bought in Marlborough on the South Island. The wines were so good that they ramped up production and cut costs by shipping cases to itself (a “direct import” that cut out a major layer of distribution costs). That allowed Babich to sell this wine at a lower price than it normally would have.
The aroma is classic Marlborough (lime, tropical fruit, grapefruit, gooseberry), and it’s drier than most. It’s occasionally seen at less than $10!