North Fork vineyards catch a break with new liquor laws

05/05/2011 5:20 AM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Joe Gergela (left), executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, and Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler at last Thursday’s State Liquor Authority forum.

The New York State Liquor Authority is planning to revamp licensing rules made at about the time when anyone producing alcohol was considered a criminal, and that’s heartening news for North Fork vintners, who have long said the process is cumbersome.

State Liquor Authority chairman Dennis Rosen and legal counsel Tom Donohue shared the message about planned changes with local winemakers at a briefing last Thursday morning at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead.

“One thing you’ve got to understand is that you’re part of a larger industry, whether you like it or not,” Mr. Rosen told the crowd of about 50 winemakers.

Mr. Rosen said that the Alcoholic Beverages Control (ABC) laws in New York were drafted in 1934, just after the end of Prohibition.

“The idea at that time was that they were regulating criminals,” he said. “That tone is still there in the statute. Where many of you see yourself as farmers, there’s a big difference between making wine and raising vegetables.”

Mr. Rosen took office two years ago after a long career in the state attorney general’s office, where he prosecuted many cases involving pay-to-play practices in the liquor industry and investigated “gray market” alcohol that was mislabeled or made false claims about its alcohol content.

He told the crowd Thursday that it’s his mission to reduce the department’s backlog of liquor license requests and to revamp ABC laws to make the process less onerous for winery owners.

But even with the backing of the industry, he said, other attempts to make the process easier for small wineries through the Agriculture & Markets law have failed to win legislative support in Albany.

“You should vigorously advocate for legislation for your industry,” he told the winemakers. “A lot of times that we say no to an activity your industry is engaging in, we have to because the statute says no.”

For example, he said, the Liquor Authority recently received a request from a man for a tasting room upstairs in a barn because his wife’s art studio was on the ground floor. But the ABC law requires the entrance to an establishment that sells alcohol be level with the street, a throwback to the original intent of preventing the proliferation of speakeasies.

He said it would be much better for the liquor authority to promote domestic peace by allowing the winemaker’s wife to keep her studio.

Mr. Donohue said that the Liquor Authority has taken very few actions against winemakers, but the various types of permits required by winemakers are dizzyingly complex.

Winemakers can receive a liquor license as a regular farm winery, as a microwinery, as a wholesaler or as a special winery or special farm winery, all of which allow different activities to take place on the premises. In addition, those who transport wine for wineries need to have a separate solicitor’s license, and wineries conducting off-site tastings need special approvals.

In addition, he said, winery owners who donate wine to charities for fundraisers need to make sure that the charities either have liquor licenses or must give the wine directly to caterers with liquor licenses. While that’s a technical reading of the law, “I’m much more interested in underage drinking than I am in prosecuting a charity raffling off a basket that has a bottle of wine in it,” said Mr. Rosen.

And there’s also nothing in the code that defines a farm. Mr. Donohue said that the Liquor Authority once issued a farm winery license to allow the owner of a house in a Long Island subdivision where the only productive soil was the dirt in a flower box.

The liquor authority allows different types of wineries to distribute wine from their manufacturing facilities in different fashions, at a time when the agency was trying to thwart efforts to consume alcohol at production facilities, said Mr. Donohue.

For example, a winery needs a separate license to sell wine by the glass at its manufacturing facility, and a farm winery cannot sell wine by the glass at any of its satellite stores. But the farm winery can offer a “taste” at a satellite store, and since there’s no restriction on the size of a “taste,” it’s easy to get around that section of the law.

Mr. Donohue and Mr. Rosen said they hope their attempts at a complete overhaul of the ABC law will address many of these inconsistencies, but both they and industry advocates said that change won’t come easily.

“You have no idea how hard it is to get something through the Legislature,” said Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela, who with The Long Island Wine Council helped organize Thursday’s event. He added that the state’s strong anti-liquor and wholesale lobbies could easily squash ABC law reform efforts.

“Everybody in the world is looking at this through the microscope,” he said.

[email protected]