Liquor lobby breaks out the hard stuff

Assemblyman Marc Levine is learning hard lessons about the clout of the liquor lobby, as are we all.

Levine, a Marin County Democrat, is carrying Assembly Bill 1233, seemingly a simple bill to update a law approved after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition that bars distillers from selling directly to the public.

In recent years, entrepreneurs have opened scores of small distilleries and rectifiers to make whiskey and other hard liquor in small batches. Seeking to capitalize on consumer interest in boutique products, latter-day moonshiners want to be able to sell up to three bottles of their booze to visitors to their tasting rooms, the point of Levine’s bill.

As it is, they cannot legally sell even a pint of their finest hooch directly to the public, a vestige of a post-Prohibition notion that manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers should be kept separate.

Every law has its constituency, and liquor law is no exception, as became apparent when Levine’s measure stalled last week in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee.

The state’s two main liquor distributors, Young’s Market Co. and Southern Wine & Spirits, have not come out in opposition to the bill. But lobbying firms that represent Young’s and Southern Spirits represent the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California, which is opposing the bill.

In a letter to legislators, the liquor trade group claims the bill “provides no controls over the consumption of the distilled spirits after they are purchased.” The same could be said of liquor stores and supermarkets.

“What if the distiller is located near a school or other sensitive locations?” the letter asked, as if there aren’t liquor retailers located near “sensitive” locations.

The Teamsters union represents workers in the liquor industry, and warned in its opposition letter that “the sort of the deregulation that this bill promotes puts those members’ jobs in serious jeopardy.”

“Our concern with this bill is that it will ultimately make these jobs disappear. We’ve seen it over and over again with deregulation,” Teamsters’ lobbyists wrote.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat who chairs the Governmental Organization Committee, said in an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that he supports the concept behind Levine’s bill but believes it raises many questions.

What constitutes a small distillery? Should there be public notices and an opportunity for public comment before they are permitted to sell their wares?

At Gray’s urging, the committee voted 16-1 to hold a hearing in October on the issue of the laws regulating the manufacture, distribution and retail sales of hard liquor. That would kill it for the year.

It’s not as if the law is a mystery to Capitol insiders. There have been numerous hearings dating back decades into the so-called tied house laws that Levine seeks to alter. Even so, we’re all for full discussion. In that spirit, Gray ought to convene a hearing. This time, he should focus on the influence of the liquor industry on California’s Capitol.