Liquor lobby uncorks distillery bill

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization. The Associated Press

In May, the liquor lobby and Assemblyman Adam Gray combined to bottle up reasonable legislation that sought to permit entrepreneurs who open small distilleries to sell their wares to tourists who stop by for tastings.

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California, a trade group that represents larger industry players, warned that the bill by Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Marin County Democrat, provided “no controls over the consumption of the distilled spirits after they are purchased.”

The Teamsters union, which represents drivers for California’s two major liquor distributors, Young’s Market and Southern Spirits, opposed it, too, saying “the sort of deregulation that this bill promotes puts those members’ jobs in serious jeopardy.”

Gray, a Merced Democrat, chairs the Governmental Organization Committee, which has jurisdiction over California’s Byzantine liquor laws, and said he wanted to study the issue, a step that was intended to kill it for the year.

Two months later, everything changed. Key legislators including Gray and Levine and, most importantly, the liquor industry seem to have reached an accord.

Ultimately, there is no good reason to block the measure to let small distillers to sell whiskey to customers at their tasting rooms.

Gray went so far as to sacrifice one of his bills, Assembly Bill 1295, by inserting language that roughly mirrors verbiage of the Levine bill that was so objectionable in May and making Levine the lead author.

The new Levine-Gray version would permit small and midsize distillers to charge for tastings, offer mixed drinks, and sell as many as three bottles to customers. The California Artisanal Distillers Guild, the trade group that represents small operators, seems pleased with the compromise.

The bill faces several more hurdles. But for now, the important players seem in agreement. As consumers’ tastes change, dozens of new distilleries and rectifiers seek to enhance their businesses and ought to be able to sell whiskey and other spirits directly to visitors. The legislation would give distillers the same privileges already granted to wineries and breweries, which can sell their products.

The deal also reflects the liquor industry’s clout. The bill stalled when the industry opposed it. At a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee this month, lobbyists for Young’s Market and Southern Spirits said they supported the accord. Moments later, the committee approved the measure.

Several other states allow such sales. Ultimately, there is no good reason to block the measure. Prohibition did, after all, end more than 50 years ago.

In a state where wineries and small breweries flourish, small manufacturers of spirits ought to be able to make money, too. The Legislature seems to have reached that conclusion, with the consent of the liquor lobby.