Sonoma County distillers seek to end anti-tasting law

  • Amy and Fred Groth, founders of HelloCello and Prohibition Spirits, sell lines of whiskey and liqueurs. Photo taken at their distillery on Thursday, January 24, 2013 in Sonoma, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Fred and Amy Groth want desperately to pour you a drink.

It's all set up in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Sonoma where bottles of alcoholic "cellos" infused with lemons, oranges and figs, along with Hooker's House Bourbon, line the bar.

Want to see how it's made? Fred pulls the lid off a tank where hundreds of lemon rinds soak in brandy sourced from local grapes. The aroma is sweet and tart.

It's also about as close as you're going to get to sampling the wares. Unlike vintners and brewers, California distillers are prohibited from letting the public sample their products under a Prohibition-era law that critics say is outdated and unfair.

"It would be nice to share our story with the general public," Amy Groth said Thursday. "We like to say we put the spirit in Sonoma."

HelloCello, the company the Groths founded in 2008, is among three distillers in Sonoma County, and 30 statewide, that have banded together to change the law so they can offer public tastings and sell their products at the distilleries.

The group, calling itself the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, is in the process of retaining the Sacramento lobbying firm of DiMare, Van Vleck and Brown to represent its interests.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, intends to introduce legislation on the group's behalf, said Dominic DiMare, a principal with the lobbying firm, which also represents Safeway, Best Buy and Mattel, among others.

Standing in the way of distillers is the powerful alcohol wholesale and distribution lobby and public attitudes about the hard stuff.

Despite a resurgence in the popularity of bygone booze-bombs such as Manhattans, a trend juiced by TV shows such as "Mad Men," there still are those who view whiskey and the like as devil's water, and cringe at the idea of having it sampled like merlot.

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