Wine Tasting Turns Bitter: New Law Frustrates Retailers, State Inspectors



AUGUSTA — Shopkeepers and state liquor enforcers alike are being dogged by a new law designed to prevent people under the age of 18 from observing alcohol consumption in grocery and specialty retail shops.

 

An Act Regarding Alcoholic Beverage Tastings, enacted in June and implemented Sept. 12, requires off-premises liquor license holders to ensure samplings occur “in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children.”

It’s a tall — if not impossible — order for some retailers to fill, according to Jeff Austin, chief liquor enforcement agent for the Maine Department of Public Safety’s Liquor Licensing and Compliance Division.

“‘Precludes the possibility’ is tough,” Austin said, “but it’s the law on the books at this time.”

Austin and five field agents are reinspecting and relicensing all retailers with off-premises liquor licenses to ensure they can offer alcoholic samples in areas that cannot be viewed by underaged passers-by. The law does not apply to wineries, distilleries or breweries and associated tasting rooms, Austin said, but does apply equally to large, chain supermarkets and smaller retail shops.

Austin said retailers and agents struggle to enforce one largely unenforceable word: “possibility.”

“They are all good business people,” Austin said of the retailers, “but that particular section of the law put handcuffs on them. We have come out with a set of criteria that makes it possible until the law is changed.”

Some business owners can move the tastings to secluded areas of stores or to an above- or below-ground story.

Others aren’t so lucky.

Scott Worcester owns Sawyer’s Specialties in Southwest Harbor, where the year-round business has conducted monthly wine tastings for more than 12 years in its 600-square-foot storefront.

“I have not had a tasting since the law went into effect,” Worcester said. “For my next one I will have to jump through many unnecessary hoops.”

Worcester conducts the wine tastings on Saturdays. More than a happy hour, he said, his tasting events are strictly for educational purposes and are now monthly routine for established customers.

“Now I will be required to prevent anyone under the age of 18 from entering my establishment during tasting hours,” he said. “I am waiting for clarification, but I think I need to block out my windows. That is just two of the ridiculous parts of this law.”

He wonders how lawmakers passed the amendments while ignoring the common sense reality of children observing adults drinking while, say, dining in a restaurant or going to a baseball game.

“If you walk by outdoor dining or restaurant windows you can view people drinking outside, but my windows need to be blackened so people can’t be seen drinking inside,” he said.

The law is further made absurd, he said, given only 5 ounces of alcohol can be sampled. People are not sampling in excess, he said.

Worcester is more enraged by how the law was passed.

“I have been told the excuse for this passing is that it was added late and no one had a chance to read it,” he said. “To me that is far more offensive than the law.”

Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland County), a co-sponsor of the amendments, said Monday the law clearly misses common sense realities, such as outdoor dining. He anticipates sections of the law will be repealed in 2010.

In the meantime, Wiscasset storeowners are equally perplexed.

“I don’t understand why the windows have to be blackened and why we’d have to make wine tastings appear like something that is done in secret or in a sneaky way,” said Stacy Linehan, owner of Treats.

Linehan conducts monthly wine tastings in the winter. The events are as much a social gathering as an opportunity to discuss new wines, Linehan said.

“Wine is an agricultural product and we are educating people about new wines and often supporting small vineyards,” Linehan said. “A portion of sales from wine tastings events go to a local nonprofit. No one wins by making it more difficult to have tastings.”

Some business owners are fortunate enough not to be affected by the new law.

John Pouwels, owner of John Edwards Market in Ellsworth, is among those who do not need to make changes. Wine tastings take place in the basement of Pouwels’ Main Street store, he said, below street level and the possible sight of children.

It’s the luck of architecture, Pouwels said Monday, admitting he was unaware of the new law.

“The law is advantageous for those who can comply,” he said. “We conduct our tastings in an art gallery downstairs and it is completely out of the public view.”

Rep. David Webster (D-Freeport) sponsored amendments to the law. He was not able to be reached for comment in time for publication.

Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell (D-Kennebec County) said Monday certain amendments to the law, including the provision to preclude the possibility of observation by children, may likely be repealed when the Legislature reconvenes.

“I think this is a perfect example of unintended consequences,” Mitchell said of the law’s impact on business owners.

Mitchell, the Senate president for the 124th Legislature, met with Austin to frame some of the tasting criteria when it became apparent retailers would need to comply for several months before the Legislature can reconvene and act.

“The bottom line here is revenue for the state and the state, in this case and at a time they need all the money they can get, is working against us,” Worcester said.

“The more I sell the more tax revenue goes to the state of Maine,” Worcester said. “So to inhibit my ability to do that with locality and morality is ridiculous and these people need to be held accountable.”

As to the possibility of repeal, Worcester is deadpan.

“It’s a wonderful resolution to a problem that never should have been created,” he said.

 

For more political news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

 

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