Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Have tasting rooms hit a tipping point in wine region towns?

BellaGrace Winery operates one of the several tasting rooms in Sutter Creek’s business core.
BellaGrace Winery operates one of the several tasting rooms in Sutter Creek’s business core.

Residents of small towns in wine regions throughout California are asking when a seemingly good thing becomes too much of a good thing.

At issue is winery tasting rooms in downtown business districts, far from vineyard and winery. Much to the alarm of some residents and business owners, they look to be taking over the commercial zones of villages such as Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County, Calistoga in Napa Valley and most especially Murphys in the Mother Lode, where around 20 tasting rooms exist along and about Main Street.

The Murphys scene has been of particular interest to folks in another historic Gold Country hamlet, Sutter Creek, where the number of satellite tasting rooms has fluctuated between seven and nine.

Too many? Not enough? About right? Strolling about Sutter Creek not long ago, chatting casually with business owners and tourists alike, I ran into each attitude. The consensus seemed to be that 10 or so would be fine; any more would make them nervous. When a petition was circulated not long ago to put a lid on the number, however, it went nowhere, according to a local business owner who asked not to be named. She said she frets that the concentration of tasting rooms is threatening the town’s character, vitality and revenues.

As to the latter, the business owner said tasting rooms don’t generate as much income for the city in sales taxes as, say, fashion boutiques and antiques shops. Not so, according to city manager Amy Gedney, who says tax revenue from tasting rooms is “on par” with income generated by other businesses.

For many wineries, particularly small family wineries that characterize the Amador County wine trade, sales of wine direct to customers via tasting rooms, wine clubs and online portals is crucial to their economic viability, given that they generally have difficulty drawing support from distributors.

But is the proliferation of tasting rooms in Sutter Creek altering significantly the texture and charm of the community? As someone who lived there 45 years ago and who returns for occasional visits, I think not. A concern among people apprehensive about tasting rooms is that they are cut-rate bars that spawn a school of tipsy imbibers who stagger noisily about town.

On my recent visit, I saw none of that. If anything, traffic through tasting rooms was surprisingly light. One tasting room – Driven Cellars’ – closed a few weeks ago from lack of business, according John Pulice, who works at the Shenandoah Valley winery. And the owner of another said he was relocating in the wake of disappointing traffic.

That would be Gary Miller of Miller Wine Works, who subsequently moved his tasting room from the heart of Main Street south to the Sutter Creek Cheese Shoppe, which he owns with his wife Kim. Cheese sales have been brisk, Miller said, and he figures that the synergy of having both businesses in one location will boost wine sales.

“I don’t have enough traffic here,” says Miller while standing on the sidewalk outside his small and handsome tasting room, scouting the street for potential customers. “Sales have been great for the number of people I’ve been getting, but I’m not getting enough traffic.”

His tasting room had occupied a corner of the Brignole building, which dates from the 1850s, an example of how the influx of tasting rooms has helped preserve and enliven several older houses and stores.

The homogeneity that some residents fear will unfold with the growth in tasting rooms doesn’t look to be happening in Sutter Creek. While the town has fewer antiques shops than it did a few decades ago, it still has several.

A new wave of diverse shops is supplementing them. Darin Sexton has opened the specialty-food market Sutter Creek Provisions, Brandi Oneto the fashion boutique Brown Eyed Girl and Dan Phelps the hand-crafted furniture store Urban Wood, to name a few.

Commercial and cultural variety downtown also includes Sutter Creek Theatre, a popular concert venue; the J. Monteverde General Merchant, a museum celebrating the old small-town grocery store; and assorted bed-and-breakfast inns, art galleries and gift shops.

While Sutter Creek has had some fine restaurants and cafes over the years, it’s never been much of a dining destination, but that too could be changing with such classy joints as the Hotel Sutter and Element, both featuring inventive New American cuisine. Erik Peterson showed me plans for a European-themed bistro he is to build next to his sign and print shop, E. Peterson & Co.

Once upon a time, Sutter Creek business people no doubt rued the closing of local gold mines. But the town didn’t dry up and blow away, and while its atmosphere has gone through other incarnations, it continues to survive. Now it’s becoming known as a place to stroll and sip wine leisurely, without sacrificing the town’s color, history and opportunities to spend money in other ways.

“It used to be all antiques shops up here, and I don’t know that that was any better than all winery tasting rooms,” says Julie Trail, a principal in Gallery 10, an art gallery. “The important thing is that they bring people here. It gives people something to do.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

Wine on Highway 49

Wine on 49, a group of wineries promoting their tasting rooms along old Highway 49 through Sutter Creek, maintains a website – www.wineon49.com – that lists directions, provides hours and suggests itineraries for visitors as interested in recreation, history, food and art as wine.