Local Taste: Tasting Rooms in Downtowns

Over the last thirty to forty years, the United States has seen a significant geographic expansion of the beer, wine, and spirits industries. Originally limited to traditional industry centers like Kentucky, Milwaukee, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and St. Louis, entrepreneurs have started breweries, distilleries, and wineries in other cities, regions, and states, particularly in California’s Central Coast, Northern Coast, and Sierra Foothills, and the Northeast, Mountain West, and Pacific Northwest.

One of the side effects of this expansion has been a growth in tasting rooms, which began as places for people to sample and sell products, but evolved to include food and merchandise sales, banquet facilities, and tours. Tasting rooms are typically associated with wineries, but can also involve beer and spirits. California followed the lead of other states by allowing paid tastings for spirits starting January 1, 2014.

Tasting rooms are often incorporated into production facilities, but breweries, distilleries, and wineries have also opened downtown locations for more convenient access to consumers. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company recently opened a tasting room on Berkeley’s 4th Street, 150 miles from their Chico brewery. Downtown Newburg (OR), Downtown Sutter Creek (CA), Old Town Temecula (CA), and Downtown Walla Walla (WA) have become popular destinations for wine tourists. Downtown tasting rooms provide additional revenue for local companies (though distillers cannot sell directly to consumers in California), showcase unique local products, and help revitalize depressed areas.

Ficklin Wilcox Wine Tasting Room in Midtown Sacramento

Ficklin Wilcox Wine Tasting Room in Midtown Sacramento

Tasting rooms pose a challenge for local government to regulate because they serve alcohol and sell packaged alcohol, but are distinct from traditional bars and liquor stores. They cater to connoisseurs of beer, wine, and spirits, a characteristic that suggests that patrons are less likely to drink to excess than a traditional bar. They often serve smaller portions than traditional bars. However, patrons still can drink too much because state laws do not necessarily limit the amount that tasting rooms can serve a customer and, in areas where tasting rooms cluster, small portions can add up.

In order to confront these problems, many local governments limit the location of tasting rooms, their hours and days of operation, the building area, and whether events, food, live entertainment, and retail sales are allowed. There have been proposed caps on the number of tasting rooms in Downtown Healdsburg (CA) and Sonoma’s (CA) Plaza District. Proponents of these caps argue that tasting rooms and similar businesses are crowding out other types of businesses and may lead to drunken behavior in adjacent residential neighborhoods and on roads.

Nevertheless, the popularity of smaller breweries, distilleries, and wineries and accompanying tasting rooms shows no signs of dissipating. The number of breweries in the United States has grown from 89 in 1978 to 2,538 in June 2013, the number of wineries in North America surpassed 8,000 in 2013, and the number of distilleries in the United States has grown from 50 in 2005 to 250 in 2012. Tasting rooms have opened in a variety of downtowns, including those with large tourism sectors such as Breckenridge (CO), San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Fe, and those with smaller ones such as Alhambra (CA), Lodi (CA), and Spokane (WA). As these uses grow and move into other downtowns, communities will need to balance the need for economic development in their downtowns with that of public safety and economic diversity.

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