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New bill expands tastings to craft distillers


California's craft distillers would finally be allowed to offer guests tastes of their products under a bill passed by the state legislature in its final days.

"It's a step; at least we have a way now to let people to experience our product," said Fred Groth, founder and distiller at Prohibition Spirits and HelloCello in Sonoma, a leading voice for the change. "Hopefully that will give them enough (to say) 'Oh, that was really good. Maybe now I'll go out and buy it.'"

Wineries and breweries long have been allowed to let customers sample their products on site, and are even permitted to sell bottles or kegs directly to customers. Distillers, however, have lived under a confusing patchwork of regulations that meant in most cases they could not offer tastings or sell bottles directly.

Makers of fruit-based brandies currently are allowed to sell their products at their production facilities but cannot offer tastings. Makers of other liquors, such as rum, whiskey and vodka, cannot sell bottles; some are allowed to offer free tastings, others are not allowed to offer tastings of any kind, depending on what type of license they hold from the state.

The new bill, which is awaiting the governor's signature, would go some way to make the rules more consistent, allowing all types of distillers to offer tastings for a fee. It caps sample pours at a quarter of an ounce and limits them to six per customer.

It will not, however, allow makers of non-brandy liquors to sell directly to the public, leading many distillers to call the bill a hollow victory.

"The only way for this world to make sense would be for me to be able to sell my own products," said Marko Karakasevic, master distiller at Domain Charbay in St. Helena and a board member of California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

Without the ability to sell his whiskeys, vodkas, and tequilas directly to the public, he said, there is no financial incentive to set up a tasting room at the company's distilling facility in Ukiah.

Distillers guild President Arthur Hartunian, founder of Napa Valley Distilling, admitted that the bill represents something less than a complete victory, but he said it was the best the industry could hope for in the face of opposition from distributors and liquor store owners, who worry that allowing direct sales at the distilleries would undermine their businesses.

Even the bill in its current limited form "will to a certain extent help to get craft distillers out to the public," he said.

Spokesmen for groups representing the distributors and retailers did not return calls for comment.

The bill's sponsor, Assembly member Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said she's hoping that allowing tastings will raise the industry's profile and perhaps create greater momentum from the public to allow at least limited sales at distilleries. She said it's not clear, however, whether such a bill would be possible next session.

"I'll take my cues from the distillers themselves," she said. "I don't want to get out ahead of them."

Most other states allow tasting and sales at distilleries; artisanal liquors are becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction. Skinner said she got interested in sponsoring the bill after visiting other states and realizing that most had more liberal rules.

Distillers say their inability to offer tastings or sell to customers is a major frustration and is even limiting their business options. Hartunian said he had to shelve his plans to make high-end whiskeys because he couldn't sell directly to the public; his planned production was too small to attract the interest of distributors. He is focusing instead on the fruit-based brandies.

Others, such as Timo Marshall, founder of Spiritworks Distillery in Sebastopol, say they are constantly having to explain to guests at the distilleries why they can watch the product being made but cannot taste or buy it, as they would at a winery or brewery.

"Pretty much without fail," he said, "the visitors to our tasting room just can't believe that California is one of the few states in the country that still has this antiquated law in place."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.