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Healdsburg: Too many tasting rooms?

  • Kevin Wardell, center, and partner Sarah Johnson tell Healdsburg City Council member Stephen Babb about their plans for Bergamot Alley Bar & Wine Merchants, currently under construction, on Wednesday. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/The Press Democrat)

Healdsburg, one of Wine Country's premiere tourist destinations, is going through some soul-searching over the plethora of tasting rooms downtown.

Some residents say Healdsburg has reached saturation when it comes to places that serve alcohol.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathi Engler, who earlier this month voted against a use permit for a proposed wine bar, said the downtown has “hit a tipping point.”

“Healdsburg is just so much more than a place to imbibe,” added fellow commissioner Betsi Lewitter. “I hear again and again from friends and neighbors that they do not want any more alcohol-related businesses in the downtown.”

Healdsburg's central core has 30 tasting rooms and bars. That doesn't include 22 downtown restaurants, almost all of which serve alcohol, according to the planning department.

The town, with a population of 12,000, on occasion has considered limiting the number of tasting rooms, mainly as a way to ensure a diverse retail mix.

The controversy flared anew when the Planning Commission deadlocked 3-3 on an application for Bergamot Alley, a wine and beer bar.

On Monday, the City Council will grapple with the issue as it decides whether to grant the permit.

Proponents of the wine bar, proposed in a historic building at 328A Healdsburg Avenue, a half-block north of the plaza, said it can be a successful business at a time when others are struggling or can't afford the rents downtown.

“We are a glaringly different operation than a tasting room,” said Kevin Wardell, a sommelier and winemaker who is proposing the wine bar. He said it will cater to locals, especially those who work in the restaurant business and want a place to go after work.

He plans to stay open until 2 a.m., unlike tasting rooms that close much earlier and cater mostly to tourists.

He also will specialize in wines from around the Mediterranean, rather than from Sonoma County.

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