Barrel tasting drunkenness alarms Healdsburg merchants
By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting may be uncorking a little too much rowdiness for the town in the center of it all.
Some Healdsburg merchants are complaining that younger imbibers are getting carried away, transforming the event into a “frat party,” and even a “beer blaster.”
On back-to-back weekends the first part of this month, merchants said they witnessed participants stagger from one tasting room to another, hanging on benches and even getting sick from too much alcohol.
“There’s incredible drunkenness,” Anne Marie Montecuollo, owner of a fine jewelry store, told the City Council Monday.
“The kids are out of control, what can you say,” added Sue Sacks, owner of Interiors, a gift, clothing and jewelry store.
The merchants say they don’t want to put an end to Barrel Tasting, which just marked its 34th year and drew an estimated 20,000 people to more than 140 wineries, mostly in the Healdsburg area.
“I think we can fix it, regulate it, before it gets out of hand,” said Sacks, who said other merchants share her sentiments, but “are reluctant to get up and tell everybody.”
The two-weekend affair provides a chance for ticket buyers to try unfinished wines still in the barrel, in most cases months before they’re bottled and even longer before they are released. Most wineries also sell “futures,” allowing tasters to stake a claim to wines they can pick up later, often at discounted prices.
Criticizing an event that brings people and business to the epicenter of Wine Country is a delicate topic for merchants who don’t want to seem like prohibitionists, or too rigid.
Besides a generational gap between the younger, generally more intoxicated crowds and the more mature, discriminating wine drinkers, there also is an element of concern that the Barrel Tasting is one more thing that’s transforming Healdsburg — and not for the better.
“Locals come down in the middle of the week. They don’t like to come on weekends,” said Montecuollo. “I would like to turn back the clock a little bit and be able to see people who live in this community enjoying the downtown again.”
Mayor Gary Plass said Tuesday that he welcomes a dialogue on the topic and suggestions that the city, along with representatives of the wine industry, restaurant, hospitality sector and Chamber of Commerce scrutinize the event to avoid problems.
“I haven’t observed a large amount of people being completely out of control,” Plass, a former police sergeant, said of the popular event, adding, “I’ve seen people who have had more than their fair share.”
“We have to be doing this responsibly. We are serving a beverage that if you have too much, you can tend to get into trouble,” he said.
Police Chief Kevin Burke told Plass there has not been a spike in public drunkenness arrests associated with Barrel Tasting.
But a tasting room employee said Tuesday that some of the complaints about the event are not far off the mark.
“It gets crazy,” said Inga Zmrzel, an employee of Williamson Wines tasting room, located just off the Healdsburg Plaza. “We get a majority that are just out to drink. We get people that also are very serious about wine.”
“We’ve had a few episodes of people puking in our bathroom,” she said, adding that the crowds get so big they have to hire a bouncer to check identification at the door.
She said the tasting room serves food and has huge water coolers in an effort to mitigate the alcohol consumption. And there are also designated drivers in the crowd.
But by late afternoon, she said, some people have obviously had too much and have to be turned away.
“We close at 4 (p.m.), so you can imagine. You wouldn’t expect people to be in a state of oblivion at that point. But there are some for sure,” she said.
This year, 144 wineries participated in the Wine Road Barrel Tasting. Many of them are spread out through Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys.
The executive director of the event, Beth Costa, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Calls to members of the board were not immediately returned Tuesday evening.
Healdsburg, with its 20 tasting rooms in the downtown area, is a convenient spot for wine aficionados to walk from one venue to the next. But merchants say it makes it easy for people to overindulge, particularly on Barrel Tasting weekend.
One suggestion to help keep things under control is to raise the $30 advance price that allows purchasers to taste virtually unlimited amounts over one weekend.
“It’s too cheap an event. Thirty dollars is not a lot of money, not even for a college kid,” said Ines Scherrer, owner of Spa Dolce.
She said she’s been shocked by the loudness, drunkenness and swearing that she witnessed over the two Barrel Tasting weekends.
“There are young people in buses, partying loud and obnoxious,” she said. “I’ve had to clean up vomit on my sidewalk and broken glass. It’s not a pleasant thing.”
She said that on the second Saturday of Barrel Tasting she had to tend to a young lady in her early twenties, in high heels and a mini skirt.
“She was sitting on my sidewalk, poor thing. I said ‘Get up get yourself together.’ She was drunk,” Scherrer said.
The spa owner said the antics associated with Barrel Tasting drives away her customers.
But Montecuollo, the jewelry store owner, said she had one of her most lucrative weekends ever as a result of customers who came for Barrel Tasting and shopped.
“So it’s not from, sour grapes,” she said of her desire to see the event tamed down.
“We want everybody to be happy. We want wineries to be benefit and we want to benefit too. We’re just looking for a way to curtail the craziness,” she said.