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By SHANNON DININNY
Wade Bennett peddles hard cider and wine at farmers markets in and around Seattle, but his $20 bottles can be a tough sell when consumers can't sip and swirl the beverages first.
So for the second year in a row, Bennett has thrown his support behind a bill to allow beer and wine tasting at farmers markets in Washington, a state long known for its craft beers and the No. 2 producer of premium wine.
Nationwide, small wineries, craft brewers and distillers have been slowly chipping away at laws restricting sampling and sales as they grab more of the market. Several states now allow limited wine tastings at grocery stores, and a few, such as Oregon and Virginia, allow them at farmers markets.
Bennett said tastings are an important way for companies like his to introduce their products to prospective customers. Unlike big wineries and brewers, who sell through distributors, 90 percent of his sales are directly to the public.
"Our major retail sales are in the farmers' markets," Bennett said. "It's very important for the little itty-bitty wineries off the beaten path."
Opponents worry allowing tastings at farmers markets will foster drinking and make it easier for minors to get access to alcohol.
"Our bigger concern is the example it sets for kids, when drinking is happening in really public places," said Jim Cooper, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.
No group specifically tracks state regulations regarding alcohol sales at farmers markets. But Stacy Miller, executive director of the national Farmers Market Coalition, said there's a growing recognition of the importance direct-to-consumer sales of agricultural products like beer and wine have for local economies.
"There's no reason that vineyards and wineries, when sampling and selling responsibly, shouldn't have the right to fully participate alongside their agricultural peers at farmers markets," she said.
Bennett has grown heirloom fruits and vegetables and produced cider and juice for 20 years at Rockridge Orchards farm in Enumclaw, about 20 miles southeast of Seattle. He introduced hard cider and wine in 2005 and barreled his first brandy last year. Wine, on which he can make as much as a 50 percent profit, has been important to his continued success, he said.
While he sees 12,000 people at farmers markets each week during the high season, he believes many would be more likely to buy if they could sample the wines first.
"They're handcrafted and slightly expensive and unique, but it's hard for people to spend $20 on a bottle without knowing exactly what they taste like," he said. "We know our products are so good that, one sip, and they'll be buying a case of it."
For some farms, alcohol provides another way to diversify their sources of income. Just as some farmers who once sold apples branched out into baking and began selling apple pies, other fruit growers have begun making fruit wines, said Charlie Touchette of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association.
"Why not be able to sell the wines alongside the apples and the apple pies?" he asked.
The Washington bill would allow wine tasting at 10 farmers market this year as part of a pilot project modeled on a bill from last year that allowed tastings in grocery stores.
In other states, lawmakers have addressed the issue by allowing wineries to open portable tasting rooms that can be taken to different events.
In New York, wineries located from New York City have taken advantage of that law to sell at farmers markets in urban areas, said Cary Greene, chief operating officer for Wine America, an industry advocacy group in Washington, D.C. But it's not surprising that other states still buck the trend, he said, even those with mature wine industries.
"The wine industry has grown tremendously everywhere," he said. "The law hasn't necessarily kept up with that growth in terms of making wine accessible to consumers."
California, the nation's No. 1 wine producer, allows limited tastings outside wineries' official tasting rooms, but not at farmers markets. Also, sales at its farmers markets cannot include wine blends.
"That alone knocks off a large percentage of the growers who would even sell at markets," said Dan Best, general counsel for the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets.
With the added burden of having to enforce alcohol laws at farmers markets, the group has chosen not to pursue the issue, he said.
The Wine Institute, an advocacy and public policy group representing the California wine industry, says without support from farmers markets themselves, the issue is a "nonstarter."
But the outlook for looser regulations looks good in states where legislation has been introduced. Maryland and Massachusetts passed laws last year allowing sampling and sales at farmers markets. Washington lawmakers have passed their bill in the state House. Michigan state Sen. Geoff Hansen, a Republican who sponsored the bill there, said it never got a hearing last year, but he expects more support this time around for an industry that's growing fast. Michigan now ranks 13th in wine production.
"I'm trying to help the smaller wineries, because some of the larger ones have their own tasting rooms," Hansen said.