Sour grapes: New law forces 'Prohibition-era' measures on wine merchants
FALMOUTH — When Leavitt & Sons Deli holds its monthly wine tasting Nov. 19, newspaper or cardboard will probably cover the windows. Inside, participants will sample whites and reds behind a curtain.
The measures are designed to prevent children from watching adults consume alcohol – something they can see any day at a restaurant, but now prohibited at wine shops under recently enacted state regulations governing tastings.
Peter Leavitt calls the law "neo-Prohibitionist," and he's not alone.
As wine sellers attempt to meet the new standards – and the state's Liquor Licensing & Compliance agents scramble to conduct inspections – they say the law is hurting a key part of their business. Many have postponed tastings, while others have canceled them indefinitely.
In Portland, RSVP Discount Beverage called off its October tasting and is awaiting re-inspection, a requirement for every business under the new law. Browne Trading Co. on Commercial Street has also suspended its tastings while awaiting inspection.
Sampling will continue at Now You're Cooking in Bath, but manager Mary Milam said the store will have to lock two of its three doors to make sure children don't enter. Jennifer and John VerPlanck, owners of the Black Sheep Wine Shop in Harpswell, will take similar measures by closing their small store to walk-in traffic.
"It's an idiotic law," said Joe Riccio, the wine buyer at Downeast Beverage. "We thought about putting stuff up in the windows, but we just said (screw) it."
"It's typical Maine, uptight, Prohibitionist crap," Riccio added.
Riccio said the tastings aren't particularly important to Downeast Beverage's business. But that's not the case for Leavitt or the Black Sheep Wine Shop. VerPlanck said her Harpswell shop, which is too small to cordon off a specific area for tastings, relies on tastings to carry the business through the winter months.
"The new law is harmful to small businesses like ours and it should be repealed," she said.
At Whole Foods Market, the wine area is in the middle of the 46,000-square-foot store. Spokeswoman Barbara Gulino couldn't say if Whole Foods was unable or unwilling to curtain off the area, only that the suspension of tastings was directly related to the new law.
Meanwhile, Browne Trading Co. manager Jen Flock is still waiting for state liquor agents to inspect the shop. Flock said she's heard from other merchants experiencing similar delays.
"I actually feel bad (for the inspectors)," Flock said. "I'm sure they're dealing with some very upset people. ... You're dealing with people's livelihoods and that's when people tend to get really angry."
The new regulation requires every seller to reapply for permission to hold tastings. According to Lt. David Bowler of the state Liquor Licensing & Compliance department, that's a tall order for the agency's five inspectors.
Jeff Austin, Bowler's supervisor, said about 40 businesses have been approved since the law went into effect Sept. 12. Austin estimated more than 100 inspections are still in the pipeline.
"Overall, I think the general public doesn't like what's happening with the law, but understands that we didn't write it," Bowler said.
Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, who sponsored the amendment that put the regulations into effect, said he, too, is unhappy with the outcome. Webster said the intent was never to hurt wine shops, but rather, to target larger grocery stores that were planning to hold tastings of beer and hard liquor. Webster claimed someone who arranged grocery store tastings told him they were planning displays featuring "booze, race cars and scantily-clad women."
"We were concerned that the law would eliminate another alcohol-free zone," said Webster, adding that he didn't anticipate how strident the enforcement would be.
"We wanted to give parents a fighting chance to go to a grocery store and not have to wade through sea of drinking adults," Webster said.
But Webster's explanation didn't sit well with Leavitt.
"There were a lot of people who fell down on this job," Leavitt said. "First was this guy, Webster, that introduced the amendment. What a stupid amendment. It kills his constituents. ... Then there's the fact that none of the legislators even bothered to read it."
Webster acknowledged that representatives from Liquor Licensing & Compliance were not involved when the amendment was drafted. Two lobbying groups, however, were at the table: The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. and the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs.
Leavitt found it troubling that lobbyists played a large part in negotiating Webster's amendment.
"Why are these people doing anything with laws when they have a vested interest in them?" Leavitt said. "What are we paying (legislators) for?"
Webster said he hopes the law will be repealed during the next legislative session. Six other bills with similar intent were submitted to the Legislative Council. Webster's bill was rejected, but he's appealing the decision, arguing that his legislation will "help the wine industry."
In the meantime, local wine merchants will continue to cope with the new law. Flock, of Browne Trading Co., said she hopes customers will return despite the canceled events that had become almost ritualistic.
"It's just shameful (lawmakers) didn't think about the consequences before voting," she said.