It’s probably forgivable that after six years members of the Long Island wine community still harbor some dissatisfaction with the State Liquor Authority. In November of 2005, agents from the SLA conducted what many considered a raid, and shut down the tasting room for selling bottled water, as well as other items that, according to the state’s farm winery law, are forbidden for retail.
The law has since been amended, and wineries are allowed to sell water, as well as some food items, souvenirs and wine-related products.
But remnants of that dissatisfaction are still there and surfaced, along with frustration at the maze-like laws governing alcohol in this state, during a three-hour get-together Thursday morning at when three members of the SLA, Commissioner Dennis Rosen, Kerri O’Brien, deputy commissioner of licensing, and Thomas Donohue, special counsel to the authority, took questions from a crowd of about 40 people.
Rosen, who started his job in 2009, began the presentation, reminding everyone that ABC law was written in 1934, after the repeal of prohibition, when it was assumed that anyone dealing with liquor was a criminal.
“And that tone is still in the statute,” he said.
He also said the statute has never been updated to deal with the needs of the industry in the 21st century.
“But you have to remember,” he said. “You’re part of a bigger industry, whether you like it or not.”
Changes to the law, he said, would require vigorous advocating and the realization that changes must be approved by the state Legislature. And even when all stakeholders agree a revision is viable and legal, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be passed.
As a result, the statute has been jerry-rigged, as opposed to overhauled, which is ultimately his goal.
“We’re trying to be flexible,” he said. “I want to hear your input and criticisms.”
For the most part, members of the audience, which included winery owners, winemakers and tasting room staff, seemed to take him at his word; others let their disgust at the number of licenses and piles of paperwork required to sell their goods quite known.
In regard to the solicitor’s license required of the staff wholesaling their goods, Barbara Shinn, owner of with her husband David Page, said, “It’s ridiculous to us. Why aren’t they changing it?” Her husband added, “You like the $100 bucks you get from us.”
Richard Rubin, an owner of , asked who, exactly, were the people rejecting license applications and complained of limitations of getting “their brand out” by selling bottles of wine at charity functions and making donations for raffles at for-profit fundraisers.
The fact that alcohol is a regulated substance came up frequently, especially in distinctions between Agriculture and Markets law and Liquor Authority law.
“I know many of you consider yourselves essentially as farmers,” Rosen said. “But there is a difference between raising vegetables and raising wine.” And as employees of the authority, he said, they are obliged to uphold what is on the books.
And changing what is on the books is difficult, said Joe Gergela, the executive director of the . “I’ve been writing bills for 23 years,” he said. “And you have to remember that so many people weigh in: the legislature, the attorney general’s office, MADD, supermarkets, the wholesale industry. Everyone is looking at it through a microscope. It’s hard to get something passed.”
On a town level, many had questions about where on their property they could serve wine, and what jurisdiction the towns have over their businesses.
The town can make laws regarding the wineries except about anything that has to do with the distribution of alcohol, Donohue said. So yes, they can regulate restaurants, under SLA law, as that is a zoning issue.
Also, just as the local bar has to keep its patrons from imbibing off its licensed premise, so must wineries, or risk liability.
If a whole property is licensed — which is easy to do under current law, said O’Brien — the licensee would be responsible for anyone who has a drink on their grounds, Donohue said, including a tractor driver who decides to have a beer with his lunch out in the field.
As for enforcement, Donohue and Rosen said they’d rather spend their resources looking for people who sell to the under-aged, wholesalers working within the gray market and anyone providing incentives to retailers, such as giving away free cases of wine or not reporting retailers who don’t pay within 30 days of purchase, as it would eliminate a level playing field.
“We rely on members of the industry to let us know when someone is doing that,” Rosen said.