YAKIMA – 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.
While Bennett 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.”
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.
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.