Barrel Tasting Weekend Comes Under Fire at Brief City Council Meeting

“Culture of incredible drunkenness” decried in public comment at City Council meeting by two downtown merchants.


It was one of the shortest meetings on record, ending just over 20 minutes after it was called to order on Monday night. There was very little in the way of new business – the single item on the agenda, the receipt of a report on a community poll regarding potential increases in taxes for city services, was delayed until the April 2 meeting.

But there was news. In the public comments on non-agenda items, two downtown business merchants asked the City Council to initiate a review of the Barrel Tasting weekend, which took place the first two weekends of this month.

Ann Marie Montecuollo of was the first to speak, opening her remarks with grim, “This is something that I never expected to say…”

“The event has produced a culture of incredible drunkenness in town," she said. “My fear is that something tragic is going to happen.” She recounted a general atmosphere of inebriation, especially among people in the 20s, that was disturbing to merchants and other town visitors.

Barrel Tasting is one of three large annual events sponsored by , an association of wineries and lodgings in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys. Participants purchase passes to a number of participating wineries and are issued a wrist band and wine glass, and are able to sample developing wine from barrel in order to buy “futures.”  There were over 100 wineries participating this year, though a number of Wine Road member wineries do not take part.

 “The glasses they carry to go from one tasting room to another are supposed to be empty,” recalled Montecuollo. "They are not empty. They are being filled with beer in some cases.”

“The kids are out of control, what can you say," add Sue Sacks of , the second merchant to speak. “There are horror stories everywhere. Store owners have to clean up vomit.”

But neither speaker seemed to be calling for the end of Barrel Tasting or other similar events. “We think you should try to fix this before it gets worse,” said Montecuollo. “This is a serious problem and it needs your attention.”

“We don’t want to shut it down,” echoed Sacks, “because it’s good business for everyone. It’s just not smart business.”

Both merchants expressed concern for the safety of participants, and wondered too about legal responsibility for injury or damage should things get out of hand.

Sacks suggested a “task force of tasting rooms, hotels, retailers and the Wine Road just to rethink this.”

While the Brown Act forbids the city from considering issues or taking action on any requests during the public comment period, Mayor Gary Plass agreed after the meeting that “It’s time to have a dialog.”

Beth Costa, the executive director of the Wine Road, was out of the office last week and unable to respond to a Patch request for a post mortem on the event. Earlier today she messaged that “At this point I don’t think Barrel Tasting would be very timely,” but it is expected she will discuss the issue when she returns to work tomorrow.

The reason for the short meeting was the absence of two of the five council members. Both Jim Wood and Stephen Babb were unable to attend, leaving only Susan Jones, Tom Chambers and Gary Plass at the dais. The short-staffed council decided to table the poll report until all members could be present.

Donna O'Brien March 20, 2012 at 04:21 AM
I had my Girl Scout troop on the Plaza both weekends from early afternoon until 5 PM to sell their cookies. These are older girls (7th grade). We did encounter some very tipsy people. We expected that but I was more than a little surprised by the large rowdy groups of people in their early to mid twenties. They told us they were up here on buses from SF. They seemed to view this event as an all-you-can-drink and then get back on the bus day. NONE of them had visible purchases of wine bottles as the more sedate tasters did. I did not see anyone with wine in their glasses - and I did look. We were mostly on the corner of Matheson and Healdsburg Aves at the HBG barrels. I wonder how these "tours" are marketed to this age group. At no time were my girls scared or frightened by these groups but, I have advised other troops that having younger girls selling on these days may be scary for them. I will admit, they, and local people, did buy cookies and we sold many cases on all the days we were there. Donna O'Brien GSNC Troop 10481 Leader
Lee March 20, 2012 at 05:43 AM
These complaints are ridiculous! I was on the square both days and I did not see anything untoward. Yeah, they were not a jewelry or expensive knick-knack buying, crowd, but jeez you have 50 other weekends for that. Does anyone seriously think that this event does not bring in more revenue than your average March weekend? And if the girl scouts don't want to be exposed to the "wrong kind of customer" , they should not pick those particular weekends.
Lisa Mirza Grotts March 20, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Agree. While we have been renting for seven summers near the square, we we recently purchased a home and this is our second barrel tasting. THE DRUNKENESS I OUT OF HAND! Twice my husband had to veer the car so as not to hit two young girls. Please, not turn into Napa on steroids. This town is too special!
William Allen March 20, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Here w e go again, a few incidents in a densely populated area, out of tens of thousands of people. The Wine Road polices it wineries, who decide whom to serve or not. How are they to take care of the few instances happening outside. They pay for extra CHP manpower on the roads, have Healdsburg step up from all the extra tax money you get and whine about that weekend and have a policeman patrol the square. And fyi, Healdsburg is ONE Town, this event spans 30 square mikes and many little towns, who don't see crowds or any hullaballo what so ever. I know it seems Hburg can sometimes be he epicenter of the Universe, but its not.
Beth Costa March 20, 2012 at 03:59 PM
As the Executive Director of the Wine Road I am so sorry merchants felt the need to address Barrel Tasting problems at a City Council meeting and not bother to give me a call. Certainly I would appreciate being involved in any discussion of this or any other event that the Wine Road organizes. This event draws 20,000 people to Sonoma County over two weekends, there are bound to be problems. I do believe we can continue to find ways to address problems and create an event that everyone can be proud of, showcasing our world class wineries, premier lodgings, unique shopping, and the amazing hospitality we are known for.
William Allen March 20, 2012 at 04:14 PM
again, Healdsburg & Dry Creek are one area. I spoke to many many wineries, and many commented on my blog that had a great experience, and great sales the first weekend, especially the first two days. Your experience is not reflective of everyone. I hit 7+ wineries Saturday with zero observation of anything bad.
Jesse Andrews March 20, 2012 at 04:28 PM
I am sad that the attack on Barrel Tasting and young wine drinkers continues here and at a City Council meeting. As already noted, the event brings 20,000 people over the two weekends, that is a small sports stadium. There will be inevitably be a few bad instances, but this is unncessary. The call to raise prices will only continue to alienate people from experiencing our wonderful county and the wines being produced. I don't doubt that there are a few issues, but let's put some things in perspective.
Christian Kallen March 20, 2012 at 04:51 PM
The two merchants who spoke in the public comment section of the city council meeting made it clear their experience was as downtown merchants, recognized that there was a difference between the downtown and rural experience, and were not in any way suggesting ending Barrel Tasting. They asked that an open "task force" take another look at it. Putting things in perspective is pretty much what they were calling for. It's good that the dialog has begun on Patch, but again let's remember there's no "attacking" going on, so let's not start it here.
William Allen March 20, 2012 at 04:54 PM
I think its easy for people to perceive there is an attack when all there is mentioned is negative items, and nothing offsetting positive, which is more reflective of the wider picture.
maura clark March 20, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Its all about etiquette, its a wine tasting event not as some would see it...all you can drink in one weekend! Regretful there are always a few clueless and ignorant people getting involved with these events and acting badly. Don't spoil it for the majority who know how to wine taste.... raise the minimum age to 30+ instead of the ticket price! Seriously!
Lee March 20, 2012 at 05:42 PM
I think some pithy Benjamin Franklin quotes might be applicable here: Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do. They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Many people die at twenty five and aren't buried until they are seventy five. Benjamin Franklin
James Marshall Berry March 20, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Just read the article. If it is indeed illegal to walk from venue to venue with alcohol in glasses, then it's up to the police to enforce the law. Where were they? The city takes fees for the events and grants the permits. It is up to them to see that adequate resources are committed to enforcing the law. Try to walk off the plaza with a glass of wine at an event in Sonoma and you'll get a ticket. There's a cop or an event monitor at each corner.
Lee March 21, 2012 at 07:55 PM
I think the (now deleted) comments by the young lady working at Williamson winery, were quite amusing given that all the reported trouble was at their tasting room!
I am the Lizzardking March 21, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Headsburg Plaza has become a place to party on dude! And frankly, I am outraged!! Outraged I tell ya. In fact, so outraged, I almost left the plaza in protest last weekend. But man, I must confess, don't like the taste of barrels . Tastes all woody and chit, plus one gets splinters on the tongue man.
Christian Kallen March 21, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Hey Lizzardking, could you please settle on one verifiable ID for Patch or we'll have to cut off your tail.
Lizzardking2 March 21, 2012 at 08:07 PM
Old Ben was a drunken perv, but a wise one.
Lizzardking2 March 21, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Girl Scouts scare me man.
Lizzardking's Rise March 21, 2012 at 10:43 PM
Dude! I feel like you already cut my tail off three times! I am sorry but everytime I push the send button I get this polite little note telling me that I must first follow a link sent to me via email but the link is missing! It's freaking me out man. I have been called a "missing link" several times, but never have I been missing a link. So, then dude, I have to make up a new name and a new account forcing me to be a chameleon kind of lizard. I haven't been this confused since I gained 20 pounds after a daily consumption of 5 of those diet Subway sandwiches that that skinny dude, who was once a fat dude, ate to lose all his weight. I gained so much weight that I busted the zipper of my pleather pants.
Christian Kallen March 21, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Thank you for your comment. Your concern has been forwarded to the Patch help desk at help@patch.com. Very sorry to hear of your wardrobe issues.
Julie St John March 21, 2012 at 11:10 PM
As a founding member of the Wine Road I would like to share what I sent to Executive Director Beth Costa: An article like the one in the Press Democrat was expected. I remember all the negative articles over the Wine Festival on the Plaza. Nothing new here. What I’d like to see is the ticket price raised along with extra effort by each winery to provide food of some sort. If we all agreed to serve cheese and bread (at the very least) we could link up with the artisan cheese producers and highlight another great aspect of wine country living. We served Matos' St Jorge cheese & Costeaux breads. People really appreciated the addition. We are in the rural area but were trying to slow people down and enjoy the experience rather than rushing off to the next winery. Ultimately I am of the mind to say this: each and every ticket holder is responsible for their own judgment on when to stop drinking. If there were incidents of over-consumption and driving, I would hope the CHP and police stopped them and gave them tickets or hauled them to jail. And finally, it is the bad situations that come to light when compared to the other 19,850 tasters who didn’t cause a scene. Beth Costa, her team and the Wine Road board do extremely well promoting and creating great events and I am proud to belong to such a great marketing organization. I hope the Wine Road and member wineries are invited to join the "task force" and be part of the solution.
Michael Ronnie March 22, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Cheers to The Wine Road & Barrel Tasting!
Judith Sanderson March 22, 2012 at 06:48 PM
I am not a merchant. I am a professional and a Mom. I was born here, and have a stake in the wine industry. Nonetheless, I continue to be unsatisfied with the debacle that is Barrel Tasting. I take my kid and get out of town, or we stay home. It's better for us now that we moved from Dry Creek into town, but it's still way too dangerous to be in the area.
austin March 22, 2012 at 06:54 PM
Raise the ticket prices, you will sell less tickets, but net the same dollar amount in ticket sales. Or if the problem is downtown Healdsburg centric, limit the number of downtown tasting rooms that participate. Downtown will be less crowded and thus the city's resources less taxed. As it is now, the event is the equivalent to a pub crawl, but I am happy to avoid downtown a couple weekends out of the year for the good of the town for the rest of the year.
Beth Costa March 22, 2012 at 10:14 PM
I'm happy to report I just met with Anne Marie Montecuollo, one of our local business owners. She will be gathering a list of concerns from other downtown businesses, which we can then address. Within the next couple of weeks, we'll be sitting down with Ann Marie, a few other local merchants, some downtown wineries and hopefully the Chief of Police to see what changes we can make to address their concerns. Wine Road certainly wants to see Barrel Tasting be a win/win for the wineries, other local businesses and the guests that attend from around the country. These are not insurmountable problems, certainly not an issue for the City Council to dwell on, or the Healdsburg Chamber to address. Working directly with the merchants I'm sure we can find amicable solutions for these problems ~ more things are accomplished when we attack them with a cooperative spirit.
Carol (Kiki) Noack March 23, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Whew! Some of these comments were getting a bit extreme! I still recall when Barrel Tasting weekend was about discovering exciting wines in transition, and considering whether to take the leap of faith and purchase futures. So Beth, thank you for such a professional approach. Sue and Anne Marie expressed rational concerns to the venue felt was appropriate, especially considering the legal aspects. I'm certain they are grateful that you have stepped forward to work with them and (hopefully) our police department, to make the Barrel Tasting weekend a fun, positive event for everyone. I hope the more emotional critics on both sides of this issue can relax now!
William Allen March 23, 2012 at 04:16 PM
I, and many dozens of wineries and consumers who commented on my articles, the Wine Road FB Page, wrote letters etc would disagree that "I still recall when Barrel Tasting weekend was about discovering exciting wines in transition, and considering whether to take the leap of faith and purchase futures" isn't that way now. The afternoon problems in Healdsburg don't reflect the majority of the weekend - people, and especially headline grabbing press, need to clarify that when they write, or complain. As I have stated before, and James has pointed in with the Downtown Sonoma example, nothing stops downtown Healdsburg from being more proactive with policing.
William Allen March 23, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Ticket prices WERE raised this year. And as mentioned earlier, while traffic and croweds are high for Healdsburg in the afternoon, much of the geography for OTHER wineries and business is not. Its a Healdsburg issue, not an event issue. Certainly things could be done: have the city spend a few of the tax dollars earned on policing; limit how many Hburg wineries participate and alternate weekends, Move the Healdsburg wineries pouring location to a walkaround tasting venue somewhere else. (although sales then become a problem.)
Lee March 23, 2012 at 04:48 PM
It's important to note the the "problems" that the Gift Shop merchants reported, happened at ONE TASTING ROOM, and AFTER THE EVEN WAS LONG OVER.
Lizzardking's Rise March 23, 2012 at 07:39 PM
I knew that this event had gotten out of control when dudes started calling it wine guzzling instead of wine tasting.


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