January 30, 2013

Hearings to address wine tastings, liquor sales hours

Legislation could have benefits for small business

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Marilyn Meyerhans, of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, thinks her business would benefit from a proposed state law that would lower the number of wine labels a retailer needs to carry to conduct a wine tasting.

While her orchard store carries 22 labels -- she describes it as a small part of her main business -- she would welcome the opportunity to host a tasting occasionally to boost her sales.

When she looked into it, however, she realized there's a raft of state regulations that govern wine tastings.

"I thought a wine tasting would be no big deal," she said. "It's a big deal."

State law requires retailers to carry at least 125 wine labels if they host a tasting. Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is sponsoring L.D. 24, which would lower the number to 45 labels. She said she's willing to compromise, but she thinks her bill would be a boon to small businesses.

"This is the quintessential small-business bill," she said.

The hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee was one of two Wednesday that addressed issues related to alcohol. The other bill, L.D. 15, would change the time alcohol can be sold to 5 a.m., seven days a week. Stores and bars now are prohibited from selling alcohol before 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday and before 9 a.m. Sunday.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, said many mill workers pull 12-hour shifts, which often means they get out of work at 5 a.m. He sees no reason to make them wait.

"Those who are finishing their night shift, their day is ending," he said. "It's 5 in the morning and they can't make those purchases."

The bill got additional support from the Maine Restaurant Association, the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine Chapter of the New England Convenience Store Association. No one spoke in opposition to it.

Dick Grotton, executive director of the restaurant association, said he lobbied the Legislature in 1995 to get the Sunday liquor sale time pushed back from noon to 9 a.m. At that time, people who went to brunch could not enjoy a Bloody Mary or mimosa until well after they were finished eating their meals, he said.

He described the current bill as a "minor four-hour change" that would help shift workers and tourists who want to grab breakfast on a Sunday, enjoy a cocktail and hit the road to drive home.

"It may not be the driver who's consuming at all," he said.

No one testified in opposition to either bill, but the wine tasting measure did draw words of caution from the Department of Public Safety and the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association.

Lt. Scott Ireland of the Maine State Police said if the number of labels is lowered to 45, it would mean most convenience stores in the state would be eligible to hold wine tastings.

"A person could stop in and get gas and take part in a wine tasting," he said.

Cheryl Timberlake, executive director of the distributors association, told the committee they should adopt a "go slow approach" when considering changes in existing law.

"Do you want to expand wine tastings to a host of retailers, whose main business focus may be unrelated to wine sales?" she said. "Can you craft a definition or license category to address the exception for the fine wine and boutique retailers without opening up tastings to everyone?"

Haskell said she sponsored the bill to help The Honey Exchange on Stevens Avenue in Portland. The business would like to host wine tastings, and is in an area where many people walk to the store. She said customers may balk at spending $22 for a bottle of wine if they don't know what they are getting.

Haskell also acknowledged that past wine-tasting legislation has required a lot of negotiations.

"It's sort of like touching the third rail of public policy to be talking about wine tastings," she said.

Committee chairman Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, said he would like to find a way to help Maine small businesses continue to promote Maine products. A work session on both bills is scheduled for 1 p.m. Feb. 13.

"I'm hoping we can reach some areas of compromise," he said.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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