Wine country visitors debate later tasting hours  
Bride to be Katie Barten, center, of San Francisco, had her bachlorette party Saturday with friends wine tasting at a variety of wineries. The party included, from left, Lauren Ziemba, Meredith McCreary, Bridget Greenlee and Mandi Armond. The group ended their tasting at Mayo Family Winery.
Published: Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 7:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 11, 2010 at 7:39 p.m.
Andrew Chen was pumping out push-ups about 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the back patio of the tasting room at Mayo Family Winery.

His five friends, all in their late 20s and early 30s, were seated around a picnic table, sharing a 2006 bottle of the winery's red blend, The Libertine, and counting off their challenge to 28-year-old Chen.

“Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty seven . . . ” they chanted.

The Sonoma Valley winery was the fifth and last tasting-room visit of the day for the otherwise mild-mannered group from San Francisco and the East Bay. Like several dozen other tasters, including the boisterous bachlorette party of 10 women inside, they were at Mayo because the tasting room remains open until 6:30 p.m., allowing visitors to squeeze in a last sip when most other wineries have closed for the day.

The group had gotten a late start, and the extended hours were convenient, they said.

Still, late afternoon scenes such as this one have raised enough concern over noise and the risks of alcohol-impaired drivers that tasting rooms around Sonoma County could be facing new limits on their hours.

The restrictions would take aim at the happy-hour party atmosphere that some say they've witnessed at local wineries that have moved their hours past the once-standard closing time of 4 p.m.

In Sonoma County's wine country on Saturday, some tasters agreed with the need for tighter limits.

“We kind of treat (tasting) like skiing,” said David Mannix, 29, a San Francisco resident who was wrapping up a day of tasting with his wife at St. Francis Winery and Vineyards around 3:30 p.m. “We always think that we need to be done by 4 p.m.”

But others said the limits seemed an unnecessary restriction on a scene that already tends to be on the subdued side.

“Personally, if I was going to have a party, I wouldn't come here to get wasted,” said Kevin Burke, 29, a wine country aficionado from San Francisco.

The wineries that might be affected by any new regulation are in the minority. Among the 67 tasting rooms listed on the Web site of Sonoma County Vintners, 15 stay open after 5 p.m.

Still, even winery representatives who would be unaffected by the change bristled last week at the possible regulations. Many said the industry polices itself, cutting off intoxicated tasters, encouraging the use of designated drivers and discouraging rowdy behavior.

“I don't think arbitrary (time limits) that apply to everyone is the right approach,” said Christopher Silva, president and chief executive officer of St. Francis Winery.

Others said the regulation could cost them business.

Up to 40 percent of wine sales at Mayo Family Winery happen after 4 p.m., said Jeffrey Mayo, the winery's president.

The six-year-old tasting room on a busy stretch of Highway 12 was given a permit allowing it to stay open until 6:30 p.m. so that it would not close at the height of rush hour, Mayo said.

Now, he said, those extended hours “are the key to our success.”

A mile and half south on Highway 12, at Imagery Estate Winery, concern about loud noise or subdued revelry was not apparent Saturday.

A tasting room packed with young wine drinkers hummed with the loud tunes of a live rock band. Some tasters shimmied on a makeshift dance floor, their wine glasses held high.

“We have a real cross-section, from blue-hairs to millenials,” said Lance Withers, the assistant tasting room manager. He described the day's vibe as unusually boisterous.

Katie Barten, 25, who was visiting from San Francisco with nine friends for her bachelorette party, took issue with putting a time leash on such early evening festivities.

“Define raucous,” said the bride-to-be, wearing a playful white veil.

The partyers ended the day at Mayo Family Winery, shuttled there in a Ford Expedition by a designated driver.

Earlier time limits would only put a damper on such fun, they said.

“Wine country provides such a a perfect place for celebration,” Barten said.


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