A Taste of Regulation Ends Up In the Spit Bucket

by Mark Scaramella, April 18, 2010

The title of a recent piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat claimed that "Wine country visitors debate later tasting hours."

But the body of the story made it clear that the "visitors" were not debating among themselves (with one apparent minor exception), they were debating with a few County planners who believed that Sonoma County’s tasting rooms were open too long into the evening creating a party atmosphere that could be hazardous, putting drunks on the road.

Predictably, the wine people and their customers are dead-set against any such critical murmurings. They have a god-given right to do whatever the hell they please because their product is “special.” They’re always against anything that might impinge on their operations in any way. And these days with grape prices down and the economy faltering, they’re even more paranoid about possible restrictions than they’ve ever been.

Last fall, in fact, Fifth District Supervisorial candidate Wendy Roberts expressed the paranoia concisely in her first appearance before the Mendocino Board of Supervisors as a candidate: “The idea of regulating the wine industry scares me to death!” said Roberts, obviously unaware that no one had even proposed “regulating the wine industry.”

In Mendocino County, the Wendy Robertses of the County are obviously in control. Not only did they fend off suggestions last year that the Mendocino County General Plan require minor use permits for tasting rooms in residential areas (just like barber shops or childcare centers who don't even sell booze), but the only mention of tasting rooms in Mendocino’s entire set of regulations is that they cannot exceed 25% of the floor space of the winery. (Not counting the outdoor areas, the picnic areas, the bocce courts, the parking lot, the roadside, etc., of course.)

But the truth is that in spite of the bothersome paperwork that may be required of winemakers and grape growers, when it comes to actually restricting their activities in any physical way, they are not only free of any real regulation, but most government and political officials will bend over backwards to promote their activity, subsidize their activity, deregulate their activity and to actively ignore obvious violations of the existing rules which go totally unenforced.

A wine grower recently complained, for example, that it was very difficult to get a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board to take water from a creek and put it in a pond. The grower didn’t mention that permits are not required, they are only suggested so that if there’s a dispute about water allocation the “permit” is on record. Most new ponds in Mendocino County are unpermitted and nobody seems to mind.

Just recently, the wine people went into a major tiz when the State Water Board timidly suggested that maybe — and so far it is just “maybe” — they shouldn’t take water from creeks and rivers unless there’s a minimum flow for fish. The wine people claimed that they were already oh-so very self-regulating and that they’d built lots of new ponds which would prevent fish-kills like the one the Water Board was concerned about from happening. Never mind that those ponds are a primary reason the creeks and rivers run so low in the first place and that the wine people had claimed to be “self-regulating” BEFORE the recent fish kill.

Now there’s this brief blip of concern about limiting the hours of tasting rooms -- which will also go right into the spit bucket.

Nowhere in the PD article about the obviously drunk city slickers with too much disposable cash who come to Wine Country to party on $30 dollar bottles of wine was there any mention of the new law which already gives tasting rooms a huge advantage over all other booze purveyors.

Sonoma County Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, another in the long line of local Democrat incumbents who together make up the political and promotional branch of the Northcoast wine industry, recently got her special state Assembly Wine Committee to push through new rules which allow tasting rooms to sell wine by the glass (much more than by the “taste”) and to let the drunk partyers take open bottles of wine home as a specific exemption to the open container law.

At the end of 2009, Evans’ bill, AB-1470 was approved by the State Senate 40-0 and by the assembly 77-0. (Such unanimity of treatment of an industry that produces an intoxicant would probably not be present with other intoxicants, legal or illegal.) Not one legislator expressed any concern about greatly expanding the ability of tasting rooms to sell more booze, and not one comment was made for the record expressing any opposition to it. (Never mind that it got no publicity, nor did organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or police organizations make anything of it or oppose it, not wanting to annoy their Democratic Party friends who happen to be in the majority in Sacto.)

In fact, Evans and her special wine committee argued that the newly deregulated tasting room rules would produce less drunk drivers, not more.

Why? Oh, you haven’t been to a tasting room recently? Well! Before AB-1470, if you wanted to buy a bottle of wine after tasting it you had to drink it all in the tasting room (or leave the partial bottle with them, or give it to friends or fellow partyers, or pour it in the spit bucket if you didn’t like it). But now, with AB-1470, you can take that partially drunk bottle and put it right in your cup holder! Perfectly legal! (Assuming you’re not so drunk that you get caught DUI. But, of course, the cops tend to target the drunks leaving bars in rusty pickups in the wee hours, not the drunks leaving tasting rooms in rented Lexuses before it even gets dark.)

So candidate Wendy Roberts and her wine friends can all calm down because although the public sees an unregulated wild west wine scene with growers, wine-makers and wine sellers being able to use as much pesticide as they want, scrape rangeland of all trees and bushes no matter how steep, grow grapes wherever they want, pay their Mexican workers whatever they want, blend whatever they want into whatever they want and sell it for whatever price they want, build ponds and pump water wherever and whenever they want, deplete water tables wherever they want, run loud fans and bird-guns whenever they want, sell whatever they want whenever they want, and generally thumb their nose at all critics — (breath break) — government officials at all levels will not only ignore all public criticism, but will generously provide tax dollars to the wine industry for pest control, growing advice, sales promotion, and legal loopholes to make sure the wine industry stays viable at all costs. Even if nothing else (i.e., food) is being grown.

The local wine industry can continue to spit out their critics like a wine reviewer at cheap restaurant.

* * *

My favorite tasting room scenes:

And finally, this short tasting room video:

http://superfan.com/fave/Absolutely_Fabulous

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