Massachusetts wine and hard cider makers, threatened by ABCC advisory, live to see another day
Some thirty-four Massachusetts wine and hard cider producers will remain in business in 2015, thanks to an eleventh-hour legislative fix to an Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission advisory which would have crippled the small, farm-based operations.
The ABCC advisory, due to go into effect Jan. 1, would have prohibited so-called “farmer-wineries” from selling directly to stores and restaurants, forcing them instead to distribute their wares through one of the state’s licensed liquor wholesalers.
The November notice from state alcohol regulators appeared months after new shipping rules for farmer-wineries were signed into law in July. The intent of the legislative language, buried within the state budget bill, was to allow out-of-state wineries to ship directly to Massachusetts customers, an accommodation long-sought-after by wine industry lobbyists.
The unintended consequence was to make it illegal for small, in-state farmer-wineries to simply load up the minivan with a dozen cases and sell them directly to local stores and restaurants.
“There’s no way our small, local vineyards could afford to pay a wholesaler,” said Benson Hyde, co-owner of Provisions, a downtown Northampton wine, craft beer and specialty food shop which carries many local brands. “And there’s no guarantee their product would be properly marketed or promoted.”
The impact of the July legislation was not immediately apparent. Small wine and cider-makers across the state were shocked in November when the ABCC suddenly posted information to its website saying they would have to ship exclusively through wholesale distributors starting in 2015. Fearful for their livelihoods, the craft beverage producers one-by-one contacted their state legislators.
Relief came on New Year’s Eve, when lawmakers, prodded by South Hadley DemocratJohn Scibak, passed a fix. Scibak co-chairs the joint legislative committee in charge of alcoholic beverage laws.
“Fixing this problem was the only thing I worked on the whole month of December,” said Scibak. “It was non-stop.” Scibak said since first hearing about the problem, he scrambled to find a legislative solution, meeting with farmers and producers, other lawmakers, wholesale liquor distributors, and state liquor regulators.
“The vote went through at 3:25 p.m. on Wednesday,” said Scibak. “It was the last thing passed by the House in 2014.”
The deal carved out a shipping exemption for the farmer-wineries without at the same time allowing out-of-state producers to deliver directly to Massachusetts stores and restaurants, said Scibak. Large producers must still ship and distribute exclusively through wholesalers; small beer breweries still operate under a completely different set of rules.
Scibak said he and other lawmakers hadn’t expected the ABCC to interpret the July wine shipping rules the way they did.
Jennifer Williams and her husband Steve Gougeon run the Bear Swamp Orchard and Cidery in Ashfield. Williams said Saturday she was “incredibly relieved that July’s legislative oversight” had been fixed.
Bear Swamp produces fewer than 2,000 gallons of hard cider annually, said Williams. She said it was unlikely that any large distributor would want to carry their craft beverage, and even if they did, wouldn’t necessarily market and promote it well.
“It would be a big pain for them, and would not be a money-maker,” Williams said. “This is why self-distribution is so important to us.”
While Bear Swamp runs a pick-your-own orchard and farm stand in the fall, the bulk of the farm’s income comes from the hard cider. The family not only invested in the cider operation in 2012, but made it an important part of their business plan, and would not be able to simply close it down and survive, she said.
Bear Swamp sells its cider directly to Ryan & Casey Liquors in Greenfield, to River Valley Market in Northampton, and to Provisions, said Williams.
Hyde, found at his wine shop Friday, said Provisions does business with seven or eight local outfits, including Black Birch Vineyard in Southampton, Mt. Warner Vineyards in Hadley, Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley, Mineral Hills Winery in Northampton, and the Bear Swamp Cidery.
Usually, he said, local winemakers simply pull up at his shop in a truck or car to sell a few cases.
“We do well with these local products,” said Hyde. “Our customers appreciate the local angle. Plus, they’re of very good quality. People come in specifically looking for our local wines and ciders. I’m incredibly excited to be able to work with these guys.”
Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Gov. Patrick has signed the farmer-winery bill into law. Patrick has not yet signed the measure.