Wine, Booze and Cheese

Some local wineries and distilleries are worried about the integrity of the product because of loopholes in state law. (Stock photo / March 4, 2013)

It takes a long time to create a vineyard. That's why Connecticut law allows a Connecticut winery seven years to meet a state mandate that at least one-quarter of its wine be made with grapes grown locally.

Some of this state's winery folks are now worried about a loophole in that law that could allow unscrupulous types to get around that seven-year deadline simply by changing the names of the owners. When that happens now, the clock gets restarted and those "new" owners get another seven years to meet the 25 percent Connecticut grapes requirement.

"I'm aware of several wineries over the past five years that have changed to different owners," says Jamie Jones, president of the Connecticut Vineyard & Winery Association.

Closing that loophole is the goal of legislation the association and the Connecticut Farm Bureau is supporting in this year's General Assembly.

"Any change of the permittee between family members or formation of another legal entity will reset this clock," Jones told the legislature's General Law Committee last week. "In essence, a Connecticut farm winery, by making these ownership changes, would not have to harvest any crop and still remain legally licensed indefinitely."

State officials are already investigating allegations that some of Connecticut's 34 licensed wineries are cheating by using way too much out-of-state grapes to make their wines. Department of Consumer Protection officials have declined to comment on the investigation, but sources say there are even reports of wine being bottled outside Connecticut, shipped here and relabeled as Connecticut wine.

While the wineries are worrying about the integrity of their product, Connecticut's small distillery industry is asking lawmakers to let them do on-site customer tastings of the booze they're making. And cheese shop owners in this state think they should be given the okay by lawmakers to sell a bit of wine and beer to go with the yummy stinky stuff they offer their patrons.

(And you probably thought Connecticut's dull old General Assembly doesn't get involved in tasty controversies like these.)

Jones' family owns the Jones Winery in Shelton where they have some 400 acres they use to grow grapes, fruit, veggies and Christmas trees. He told legislators his winery produces about 4,000 cases of wine a year and brings in more than 10,000 visitors for tastings.

He says his family and most other Connecticut winery operations have put a lot of money and time into developing their vineyards and want to make sure that the wine being produced here is really Connecticut wine. Jones says the last thing legitimate wine-growers want is a suspicion that some owners "are trying to get around" the legal requirements in state law.

Henry Talmage is executive director of the non-profit Connecticut Farm Bureau Association representing more than 5,000 farming families in this state. He says changing that loophole in the seven-year winery law only makes sense.

"The original intent of the existing law was to provide a means to ramp-up production while allowing the winery to operate as their fruit production increased over time," Talmage testified.

"In order to support the agricultural nature of the wine business, we believe that a significant percentage of the fruit used in making Connecticut wines should be grown in Connecticut," says Talmage.

Once upon a time, this state used to require that at least 51 percent of a Connecticut winery's product be made from Connecticut-grown grapes. That threshold was dropped to 25 percent (after seven years) in 2004 after an earlier scandal about wineries using far too much grape product from outside this state. The idea in dropping the threshold was to make it easier for wineries to comply with state law

Meanwhile, distillers like Margaret and Louis Chatey from Ashford and Adam von Gootkin from East Hartford are asking that they be allowed to have tastings the same way wineries do now.

"There is a tremendous amount of interest in what we do, and we have requests every day for tours and tastings at our facilities," the Chateys, who operate Westford Hill Distillers, said in testimony submitted to lawmakers.

"When we host open houses, typically attended by hundreds of visitors in a day who come to see the distillation process and learn about our brand, we are not allowed to [offer] samples or sell the spirits we produce," according to the Chateys. "This is a lost business opportunity."

Von Gootkin, one of the owners of Onyx Spirits, agrees. "This is a major problem for obvious reasons," he said in his testimony. According to von Gootkin, even restaurant and bar owners visiting a distillery can't sample the product.

In von Gootkin's opinion, allowing on-site tastings of Connecticut-made booze "would not only allow Onyx Spirits Company to compete more fairly with brands in other states, but has the potential to help create tourist destinations for all distilleries located in Connecticut."

The reason for the cheese shops wanting to sell beer and wine is simple: last year, state lawmakers approved a law allowing Connecticut liquor stores to sell cheese and other "food-related items."

Ken Skovron, owner of Darien Cheese & Fine Foods, argues that little change put his and other cheese shops "at a competitive disadvantage" and cut into their business. "How much more can we take before we are forced out of business?" he asked lawmakers.

Skovron also pointed out that neighboring states like New York, Massachusetts and Vermont already let their cheese shops sell wine and beer.

His question to the legislature was simple: "How about leveling the playing field?"

Of course, Connecticut's package stores don't think much of allowing any more competition. Their lobbyist's response was, if cheese shops want to sell boose, let them go get a liquor license.

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter