Farm wineries call for changes to new liquor law

Hartford — Connecticut vineyard owners joined a bipartisan group of legislators Tuesday in calling for action to address an “unintended consequence” of an alcohol bill the General Assembly passed overwhelmingly last year.

The House and Senate last spring passed Senate Bill 647, a bipartisan measure streamlining the Liquor Control Act; it garnered 175 votes in favor and six against.

The bill got enthusiastic support from breweries for condensing the number of required permits and raising purchase limits, but legislators are now concerned about its creation of a permit allowing people to manufacture and sell wine made solely from out-of-state grapes. Connecticut wineries now must grow at least 25% of their fruit on-site.

Given how much they invest in land, infrastructure and labor, owners of farm wineries don't want the benefits and incentives they receive to be extended to those with lower production costs.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, and Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, are two legislators who voted for the bill but now have concerns about the impact on farm wineries. Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, was not at the news conference but was one of the six who voted against the bill, sharing with The Day in July the same concerns legislators brought up Tuesday.

Candelora noted that with the surplus of California grapes, the permit allows Connecticut businesses to purchase those grapes and “turn around and start competing with our farm wineries, and that’s not what the state of Connecticut had intended.” He is asking for the General Law Committee to look at this issue, and wants to see a moratorium before the law goes into effect on July 1.

The Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association organized Tuesday's news conference. The eponymous owner of Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington, who also is the association's president, noted that the law allows a single permittee to sell up to 100,000 gallons, or 40,000 cases, of wine not made from Connecticut grapes. By comparison, his winery produces only 10,000 cases a year, made from grapes produced by its own vineyard and imported.

Edwards said he testified in support of the bill at first but he later was “surprised and stunned” when the permit for wine manufacturers was added. Asked why it was added, Candelora said it was done by the leadership of the General Law Committee behind closed doors, which committee Co-Chair Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, disputed.

The bill on which Edwards testified on Feb. 28 was a one-page placeholder that proposed reducing the number of manufacturer permits to three: one for beer, one for wine and cider, and one for liquor.

The General Law Committee drafted a 38-page bill on March 21, and D’Agostino said there was a full discussion — including of the farm wineries — when the bill later came up in the House of Representatives.

D’Agostino and Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, defended the new permit in speaking with reporters after the news conference. D’Agostino positioned this as a matter of leveling the playing field, saying all the bill does is allow everyone to have a taproom and sell directly to retailers if they produce less than 100,000 gallons.

Edwards, on the other hand, said the beer and wine industries are different and there isn’t parity because brewers mostly don’t grow their own grain and hops.

While Candelora criticized the creation of competition for farm wineries, D’Agostino said he wants competition for consumers, adding that while “everybody wants to protect their fiefdom,” it’s legislators' job “to look across the board.”

Citing The Wine Press in North Haven, D'Agostino said that those importing grapes from other states have a fundamentally different business model from farm wineries. He also floated the idea of raising the in-state fruit threshold for farm wineries from 25% to 50%.

e.moser@theday.com

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