Pending Sonoma County winery event rules pit vintners against residents

A yearslong debate over new rules for winery events in Sonoma County took a step forward this week with more public input to county planners.

The planners are trying to determine what falls under normal business activities for a winery as opposed to those that are considered events and would be subject to heightened regulation. A draft ordinance would apply to new winery permits and the county Board of Supervisors are expected to consider it in the spring.

The board has grappled with the thorny events matter for at least seven years, amid complaints from residents in areas such as Westside Road and the Sonoma Valley about increased noise and traffic in their bucolic neighborhoods. Those residents have fought against the powerful wine sector, whose representatives have argued that tourists who come to winery events are vital to their revenue because they can sign them up for their wine clubs.

“Our mission here at Permit Sonoma is to balance environmental protection with sustainable development. And that's probably exhibited nowhere better than in this subject,” said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, which hosted the public forum Thursday via Zoom about its framework of suggested rules that will provide the basis for the county’s draft ordinance.

The goal is to have a more streamlined process for winery permits in unincorporated areas to avoid the battles of past years when proposals from wineries such as Hop Kiln and Ramey Wine Cellars faced opposition in contentious hearings before the county Board of Zoning Adjustments. In addition, site specific guidelines are being formulated for the three heavily affected areas of Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road in and near Healdsburg with input from a cross section of interested parties.

Permit Sonoma’s framework attempts to differentiate among activities that would apply to typical winery visitor activities such as wine-and-food pairings and parties, versus events such as winemaker dinners or meetings sponsored by winery associations. Also, wineries could face event restrictions for hours of operations, food service and outdoor sound.

Mike Martini, owner of Taft Street Winery near Sebastopol, said it was appropriate for the county to consider a winery’s land size, parking availability and traffic issues, but he strongly cautioned against imposing strict rules that would hinder business opportunities.

“My advice is to be careful at limiting them so that they are not flexible enough to deal with the changes in the marketplace that we see,” Martini said. “The ability to sell is critical.”

Community activists said proper zoning is needed to ensure local wineries don’t try to expand by adding lodging, restaurants and spas in a push for more revenue. The activists want the wineries to be limited to typical wine tastings held between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Overall, there was a sentiment among some of the 200 forum participants that the regulations should focus on the scale and size of a winery event, instead of defining specific activities that should be curtailed.

Activist Marc Bommersbach of Westside Road said this pending ordinance will serve as a template for other local agricultural enterprises. To that end, he’s worried about the greater prospects of cannabis tourism that could bring even more traffic and challenges for rural communities.

“The supervisors have said recently whatever we come out of here in this winery event discussion is going to apply to all agricultural products, not just wineries but cannabis and everything,” Bommersbach said. “It really expands the scope here of what we are looking at.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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