Go to any farmers market in the state and you can pick from a mouthwatering array of fruits and vegetables, fresh-baked breads, homemade jams and other products straight from local farms. You can’t, however, sip a chardonnay, sniff a merlot or purchase any other offerings made at the nearly three dozen farm wineries and vineyards from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.
Now, a group representing winemakers, with the support of state agriculture officials, is pushing to change state law to permit wine to be sold at the roughly 200 farmers markets held each week in Massachusetts.
It would be a change long overdue, according to Kip Kumler, owner of Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln and chairman of the Massachusetts Farm Winery and Growers Association.
“What we are asking for here is not money, we’re not asking for economic protection, we’re not asking for special privileges — we’re just asking for them to take the shackles off, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Kumler said.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, calls winemaking a “hidden secret” of Massachusetts agriculture. He’s the lead sponsor of a bill that would permit wine tastings and sales at farmers markets. The current legislation, which has yet to receive a formal hearing, also includes provisions for the sale of beer and “distilled spirits,” though Eldridge said the focus is squarely on wine.
Farmers markets would have to apply for a liquor license from the city or town they are operating in and enforce underage drinking laws as any restaurant, bar or package store would.
Massachusetts liquor laws are more restrictive than in most other states, where winemakers can sell off-premises or specifically at farmers markets.
Similar legislation to allow wine sales at farmers markets is currently pending in Connecticut.
Most of Massachusetts’ winemaking operations are small and depend on direct sales to customers because they are not in position to compete with larger, out-of-state brands for space on package store shelves. That’s why farmers markets present such an enticing opportunity for winemakers, Kumler said, a chance to not only reach potential customers but those who are predisposed to buying locally grown products.
“It’s a very powerful way of growing our sales,” he said.
The bill is strongly opposed by liquor store owners, who also led the resistance to a 2006 ballot question that would have expanded the sale of wine in supermarkets in Massachusetts. Voters defeated that measure by a 56-44 margin.
Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Package Stores, said Eldridge’s bill is “fraught with peril” because there would be no guarantees that workers at farmers markets are properly trained to weed out minors.
“Any law that makes it easier for underage individuals to obtain alcohol is bad public policy and contrary to everything our industry is working to prevent,” he said.
Kumler calls the underage drinking objection a “red herring,” saying farm wineries sell and hold tastings on their own premises all the time and have never been cited by state regulators.
Bob Madill, general manager of Sheldrake Point Vineyard in New York’s Finger Lakes region, said he regularly attends a weekend farmers market outside of Ithaca. Sales, he said, have generated meaningful revenue and helped build a loyal customer base for his winery.
“It’s a way in which consumers and producers can connect without the middle man involved,” Madill said. He also noted that unlike most fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets, customers can actually sample wine before deciding whether to buy it.
The winery association and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources recently launched an effort to promote local wine growing. The state currently has 34 licensed wineries, a number that has nearly doubled over the last 10 years.
“They’re still small family-operated wineries that don’t produce a lot in the way of volume, but quality and selection are key and farmers markets represent an ideal opportunity for marketing those products directly,” said Scott Soares, commissioner of the department.
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