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State's wine industry sees possible salvation from lawmakers


Randall Turk September 4th, 2008

Like bubbles rising through a glass of champagne, Oklahoma's fledgling wineries are taking several paths to achieve the same purpose " no matter how odd the environment for them. Owners and represent...

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Like bubbles rising through a glass of champagne, Oklahoma's fledgling wineries are taking several paths to achieve the same purpose " no matter how odd the environment for them.

Owners and representatives of the state's wineries still surviving tough state liquor regulations met Aug. 26 with staff of the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE) to see what obstacles in Oklahoma law need their attention to make way for their value-added agriculture.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM
CATEGORIZING ABLE'S REGULATIONS

The meeting was prompted by an opinion from Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who found the state Constitution forbids wineries opening bottles of wine on their premises to serve their visiting consumers. The Constitution does permit wineries to serve "samples" of wine for tasting purposes, but does not specify what size such samples may be. Edmondson's opinion did, however, deny one winemaker's suggestion that a sample might be an entire bottle of wine. He wrote the ABLE Commission will be the authority that decides such questions. No liquor distributors attended the meeting.

The state considers wineries to be manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of intoxicating beverages. So wineries are constrained by ABLE's regulations, saddling all three tiers of the process. Consequently, the wineries find it nearly impossible to move their products into the stream of commerce.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM
On another front, a petition for a Constitutional referendum that would permit Oklahoma wineries to ship directly to retailers, restaurants, bars and individual consumers within the state is nearing completion. The petition is expected to land in the Legislature by mid-November. If approved by voters and written into the Constitution, the amendment would open sales distribution channels in Oklahoma that have been denied by aggressive liquor law enforcement and opposition from a handful of prospering Oklahoma liquor wholesaling companies.

Vintners and winery owners agreed to meet with ABLE representatives and state legislators to discuss what they would like to see in a special winery statute and perhaps another amendment to the state Constitution that would apply only to grape growing and winemaking operations.

"Our Legislature has all the power not denied by the Oklahoma Constitution," Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, told the ABLE Commission staff. "The Constitution says you can't serve liquor by the drink in a public place. And you can't consume alcohol in a public place. So what is a public place? The law says wineries can serve wine off premises at festivals. What is a festival? And what is a sample size?"

CATEGORIZING ABLE'S REGULATIONS
Morgan, who has several wineries in his district, said he and Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, have been working for six years to permit Oklahoma to share the fruits of its wine industry, but with little success. Of ABLE's rule-making capabilities, which have closed several wineries in the past couple of years, Morgan said he wants to know which ABLE rules are based on the state Constitution, which stem from statutory law, and what rules are exercised at the commission's discretion. He said categorizing ABLE's regulations in that manner will govern how he and Coates devise a new law extending some breathing room to state wineries. Coates was just as evocative in describing the contortions any alcohol-related legislation must endure to become Oklahoma law.

A winery owner asked Coates why the cost of a winery license to "self-distribute" to liquor stores would be increasing from the present $75 to $750.

"One of the biggest struggles to getting things passed for wineries is Oklahoma's liquor wholesalers," Coates said. "The wholesalers are the big obstacle. When we try to write legislation to help you, the wholesalers see it as threatening their business and they try to nail it down. They want to see you suffer financially."

Like many other laws, Coates said the Legislature will have to "go back and fix it" once a new wine law gains a foothold on the books.

ABLE Director Keith Burt promised that his commission will do what it can to provide some regulatory relief for them. "You're pioneers," Burt told them. "You're not a lot of bad actors. This (wine law) will be the biggest thing since 1985, since liquor by the drink was passed."

While more than half of the state's winery owners attended the meeting, not all appreciated its timing, or the urgency of meetings on legislation soon to follow at the Capitol.

Bob McBratney, owner of Stone Bluff Cellars Winery in Haskell, just south of Tulsa, was typical of those.

"We're in the middle of the harvest," McBratney said. "We're picking and crushing grapes. This is not an opportune time for meetings. But we will appreciate ABLE's support." "Randall Turk 

 
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