January 30, 2013

Two new bills would relax Maine alcohol laws

The bills, sponsored by Democrats, would loosen the laws on wine tastings and also allow early-morning alcohol sales.

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

AUGUSTA — Marilyn Meyerhans of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester says her business would benefit from a proposed state law that would reduce the number of wine labels a retailer must carry to conduct a wine tasting.

While her store carries 22 labels – she describes it as a small part of her main business – she would welcome the opportunity to host occasional tastings to boost her sales.

When she looked into it, however, she realized that a raft of state regulations governs wine tastings. "I thought a wine tasting would be no big deal," she said Wednesday. "It's a big deal."

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

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

Wednesday's hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee was one of two that addressed issues related to alcohol. The other hearing was on L.D. 15, which would change the time when alcohol sales can start 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. on Sunday.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, said many millworkers pull 12-hour shifts, so they often get out of work at 5 a.m. He sees no reason to make them wait for a drink.

"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 support from the Maine Restaurant Association, the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine Chapter of the New England Convenience Store Association.

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. Before that, people who went to brunch couldn't enjoy a Bloody Mary or a mimosa until well after they finished eating, 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 head 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 drew 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 that if the number of wine labels is lowered to 45, most convenience stores in the state will 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 that it should take a "go-slow approach" when considering changes in state 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 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.

John Tuttle, D-Sanford, the committee's Senate chairman, said he would like to find a way to help small businesses continue to promote Maine products. "I'm hoping we can reach some areas of compromise," he said.

A work session on both bills is scheduled for 1 p.m. Feb. 13.

Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

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