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Wine Tasting at Farmers Markets?

Washington state looks likely to launch pilot program this year

by Peter Mitham
Washington farmers markets
Shoppers at some of Washington's many farmers markets may soon be able to sample locally produced wines before purchasing them.
Olympia, Wash. -- Up to 20 wineries could be allowed to pour their wines at Washington state farmers markets under a pilot program lawmakers here will consider this Friday.

The bill received house approval Feb. 15 and will come before state senators Friday. It provides a framework that will allow up to 20 wineries to offer tastings at 10 farmers markets between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011. The program mandates at least six days of tastings, under strict conditions including,

• Samples must be 2 ounces or less, up to a total of 4 ounces per customer;
• No more than one sample of any single brand may be served during a visit;
• Food must be available at the winery’s table or at an adjacent vendor’s table.

“It’s to get your alcohol out there in the community, so you can do some tasting,” Jennifer Skoda, an enforcement officer with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, told those attending the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference in Kennewick earlier this month.

Chances are good the bill will achieve just that, given a positive recommendation in a legislative staff report.

The sole objection to the pilot program came from Seth Dawson and Jim Cooper of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention, who feel it would boost the casual use of alcohol in a state that has no comprehensive education program for youths regarding the effects of alcohol consumption. Pointing to infractions of state liquor regulations during the pilot of supermarket tastings (there were just three instances, a rate not deemed extraordinary), the association urged greater funding for monitoring of compliance.

On the other hand, legislative staff summarized the association’s opinion that the bill was the best expression of a bad initiative: “We don't really like the bill, but if it has to happen, it couldn't get much better than this.”

Meanwhile, state farmers market associations applaud the move as complementing existing legislation that kicked in six years ago to allow the sale of wine at farmers markets. Those sales have languished because sampling isn’t allowed, the associations contend, noting that just 12 wineries have offered their wines at the markets.

“This bill will allow the vintners and brewers to market and sell their product more than they can now, because people will be able to sample the product,” said the staff summary of comments. “Taste is everything. People don't want to part with their money when they don't know what something tastes like.”

Walla Walla winemaker Marty Clubb told Wines & Vines the tastings will help the markets become an important alternative for the state’s smaller wineries. He estimated that some 70% move most of their wines through direct sales.

washington farmers markets
Martin Clubb, winemaker at Walla Walla's L'Ecole No. 41, feels the move would benefit the estimated 70% of Washington wineries that rely on direct-to-consumer sales. Photo by Kirk Hirota

“Having more opportunities, like a farmers market deal is a good idea,” said Clubb, who operates L’Ecole No. 41 with his wife Megan, and serves as president of the Washington Wine Institute, which supports the initiative. “The channels for selling wine through traditional methods have shrunk, particularly in the kind of economy we’ve been in the last couple of years. And yet the number of brands and small wineries continues to proliferate.”

The initiative builds on a successful supermarket tasting pilot in 2008 and 2009 (see “Washington Warms to Supermarket Tastings.”) The program garnered approval from the state house this month and is poised to become a permanent element of supermarket wine promotions.

“It’s kind of following in the footsteps of the grocery stores,” said Jean Leonard, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute said of the market tastings, noting that it’s part of what’s proving to be a busy but effective session for the institute. “We’re very pleased with the targeted, specific agenda, and so far are being very successful.”

The legislation enabling the pilot program runs through Dec. 1, 2011, by which date WSLCB staff must report on the program’s results to state legislators.



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