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.

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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