An antiquated alcohol law needs revision

The 14th annual Grape Escape was canceled because wineries feared they’d be cited for violating an outdated 80-year-old law.
The 14th annual Grape Escape was canceled because wineries feared they’d be cited for violating an outdated 80-year-old law.

Eight decades after the repeal of Prohibition, California’s protectionist laws regulating alcohol sales need to a vast overhaul.

One outdated aspect of the antiquated “tied-house laws” came into focus last month, when an Assembly committee, encouraged by the liquor lobby, bottled up a simple bill that sought to loosen the 1935-vintage statute ever so slightly.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Marin County Democrat, introduced AB 1233 to grant distillers and rectifiers of whiskey and other spirits the authority to sell three bottles to visitors to their tasting rooms.

Tied-house laws – so named because manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers cannot be tied to one another – prohibit makers of spirits from selling to the public, even in small quantities. They must instead find distributors who will deliver their product to retailers.

There might have been a reason for such a law 80 years ago. Now, the scheme protects big distributors and stifles entrepreneurs, who have opened small distilleries and hope to capture tourist dollars, as wineries and breweries have done.

The derailment of Levine’s bill was bad. But then the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau canceled an annual event built around wine promotion and sales, the SaveMart Grape Escape, The Bee’s Chris Macias wrote last week.

Wineries weren’t signing up to sell the fruits of their labors for fear of running afoul of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The ABC cited eight wineries last year because they tweeted the name of the sponsor, SaveMart Supermarkets.

ABC employees were merely enforcing the law. But the nonsensical law bars manufacturers from giving retailers anything of value, including a tweet that mentions retailers’ names.

Rather than risk the embarrassment of having only a few wineries attend, Mike Testa, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, wisely, but sadly, halted the June event. The Grape Escape helped regional vintners, winemakers and, yes, retailers promote themselves, in a city that seeks to build its reputation as the Farm to Fork Capital.

We do not encourage alcohol abuse, and support reasonable regulations about the location of bars and liquor stores, and events built around consumption. But wine, beer and spirits have been legal since Prohibition’s demise in 1933. Tied-house laws, which were adopted immediately after Prohibition, are outdated, protectionist and patronizing. They must be updated.

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