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Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2011

10 farmers markets in Washington to offer alcohol samples

Ten farmers markets in Washington state soon will be able to offer wine and beer tasting, and managers at local markets will learn today whether they’ll be one of the few.

More than 125 farmers markets belong to the Washington State Farmers Market Association. Under a law effective last Friday, 10 will be able to invite one winery, brewery or microbrewery a day to offer beverage samples, starting Sept. 1.

A lottery during today’s Liquor Control Board meeting will determine which markets will be able to provide the new service.

Gordon Taylor, winemaker and co-owner of Daven Lore Winery in Prosser, hopes the seat of Benton County will be among the test markets.

“It looks as if it will be in September, which is just about the end of the farmers market,” Taylor said. “That should still give us a chance to see if it’s going to be a train wreck or not. I can’t see myself serving wines in a glass at a farmers market because that involves a lot of cleanup and chance for breakage, and I could see problems with having mom hand her wine glass off to her 5-year-old while she gets her purse out.

“So we’re looking at serving in little plastic cups like Costco,” he added. “Only four ounces can be served, and you have to serve food, but I don’t want to be a food vendor. If it is pretzels and stuff like that, great. If it has to be a sandwich or a taco, then the board of health is involved and I’m less interested.”

Two of Tacoma’s four markets are in the running. “We like to participate in programs that will allow us more access to serve more people in the community,” said Cayenne Schonette, operations manager for three of the city’s markets.

Other managers said allowing wine tasting would benefit both the market and the vendors.

The Gig Harbor Farmers Market had wineries before, but the effort failed because customers couldn’t taste the wine before purchasing, manager Dale Schultz said.

“A lot of people aren’t going to buy the wine at $20 if they can’t sample it,” he said.

Taylor said he developed a comeback for those folks years ago.

"When I go to the grocery, I don't break open up a loaf of bread at the store to see what it tastes like," he quipped.

The Puyallup Farmers Market has two wineries that sell bottles of wine, but sales are limited, said Sarah Curtis, market manager.

“It’s hard to buy a wine when you can’t taste it,” she said. “Hopefully this will help their revenue.”

The new approach will be good for the farmers because wines sold at the markets must be made from grapes grown in Washington, said Jessica Troy, market manager of Proctor Farmers Market.

Beer sold at the markets must be produced in the state as well.

“It’s another great way for farmers to make a living farming,” Troy said.

By allowing tasting, farmers hope the markets will see more foot traffic.

“It’ll draw in more customers who wouldn’t have come,” Schultz said.

“It’s wonderful for us to add variety,” Troy said.

This also will benefit local wineries.

Taylor estimates that 15 to 20 percent of his Daven Lore sales are conducted in his booth at farmers markets in Richland and Prosser.

On June 30, the state sent letters to 59 markets eligible for today’s lottery drawing.

To take part, markets had to have been authorized by Jan. 1, 2011, to allow wineries, breweries and microbreweries to sell their products at the market. Additionally, the vendors must have been endorsed by the board to sell wine or beer by May 1, 2011.

The board got 47 responses – 40 markets said they were interested; seven said they were not, liquor board spokesman Brian Smith said.

Schonette, Schultz and Troy said they don’t think selling alcohol at the markets will be a problem because it must be served by the winery, brewery or microbrewery.

The new law comes with enough safeguards, said its prime sponsor, Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle.

“Knowing how strict the Washington State Liquor Control Board is, it’ll be heavily regulated because it’s a pilot program,” Schonette said.

Not all legislators seemed as optimistic as Kenney.

Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said the new approach was an interesting idea, but did not outweigh the trade-offs.

“We want to be able to promote Washington products,” she said. “This bill was one of the methods, but the balancing issue here was the whole way Washington distributes alcohol.”

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, agreed. She said the Legislature needs to be consistent in how cigarettes and alcohol are treated in the state.

“We don’t allow free samples of cigarettes,” she said. “After all these years, now we want to serve free samples of alcohol?”

Roach referred to initiatives 1100 and 1105, which would have allowed the privatization of liquor sales and closed state outlets. Both were defeated last November.

“The voters voted ‘no’ on easier access to liquor,” Roach said. “One thing we should consider is what the people are thinking when it comes to a law.”

The pilot project uses the same approach as at other public events where wine and beer are served, Kenney said. The goal is to increase sales at markets, she said.

The project will run until Nov. 1, 2012. If it succeeds, Kenney hopes wine and beer tasting might be offered at all farmers markets in 2013.

* This story was a collaboration of the News Tribune in Tacoma and Wine Press Northwest.