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Local distillers toast new tasting law

Sonoma County distillers are raising a glass to Gov. Jerry Brown for signing legislation that will allow purveyors of spirits to offer guests tastes of their products, much as vintners do.

“It's a step in the right direction,” Fred Groth, founder and distiller at Prohibition Spirits and HelloCello in Sonoma, said Thursday.

Unlike vintners and brewers, California distillers were prohibited from letting the public sample their products under a Prohibition-era law that critics said was outdated and unfair.

HelloCello, the company Fred and Amy Groth founded in 2008, was among three distillers in Sonoma County, and 30 statewide, that banded together to change the law.

The group succeeded against considerable odds to get approval for public tastings, but failed in their effort to sell their products directly to consumers. The latter is strenuously opposed by the nation's wholesalers.

Some distillers complained that it makes no sense to go to the expense and trouble of arranging a tasting room without the ability to sell their products directly to the public.

“I guess that is a battle for another day,” Fred Groth said.

The new law, AB 933, takes effect Jan. 1 and limits individuals to six tastes per day, and a single taste cannot exceed 0.25 ounces. That amounts to 1.5 ounces, or slightly more than the general rule of 1 ounce of hard alcohol being equal to five ounces of wine and 12 ounces of beer.

Fred Groth said he's fine with those limits.

“I don't want it to turn into a bar, obviously,” he said.

He hopes the new law, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and sailed through the Legislature, will help introduce HelloCello to more people and grow the business.

Fred Groth had a stable job as a mapping consultant with the oil and gas industry and his wife was an event planner when the couple made the decision to leave Colorado and move to Sonoma with their three kids, including twin boys, and start their new lives as distillers. It took them nearly a year to get their license.

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