by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
As I write this, I’m a couple of hours from meeting with our possible new landlords for a tasting room and winery location. I can’t help but feeling that the whole process is set up to be an obstacle course where every advance seems to be followed by a strategic retreat.
Unfortunately, alcohol is probably most regulated industry there is, apart from things like nuclear reactor waste disposal.
In order to do almost anything in the wine industry, you need to run the gauntlet of first federal, then state, then local regulation. Each regulation viewed in isolation seems reasonably tailored to some reasonable goal. That’s not 100% true, since many regulations have no other purpose than to make the production and sale of alcohol more difficult for no good reason. And many other regulations seem more tailored to protecting the vested interests in the three-tier system than anything else. But even if you grant that most of the regulations are well-intended, in practice they become a labyrinth that at times seems overwhelming.
We started off with the desire to open a tasting room. To have a tasting room, you need to be winery. Since we’ve used another winery to make our wines, this meant we had to made to the transition to being a winery ourselves.
That wouldn’t have been too much of problem, since the law allows for alternating proprietorships. In essence, that allows more then one winery to share one physical facility. So we could have continued doing pretty much what we’ve been doing for years with the technical difference that we would have obtained an alternating proprietorship permit. That would have also allowed us to open an off-site tasting room.
But each step of the regulatory system seems to impact every other step. The county, which had initially indicated all we had to do to have a tasting room was to store some wine there as well, decided we needed to ferment some wine there too.
Only the feds don’t allow you to ferment wine at a location that isn’t a winery. So now our tasting room needs to become a winery in its own right. So much for the alternating proprietorship route.
On the other hand, the idea of having our own winery is pretty attractive. It’s been fine having our wine made to our direction. But the idea of actually making it ourselves is pretty attractive. So maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.
The county didn’t stop there, though. Originally we had intended to have our wine outside. This would have avoided some costly alternations to the interior of the building we had our sights on. But now the county wants the wine stored inside. So the improvements appear to be unavoidable.
Having to ferment onsite is costly in other ways. You need equipment, such as a crusher and press, that you wouldn’t otherwise need.
So the next step is, with the county’s requirements a known quantity (at least for now), I need to meet with the owners of the property to see if we can work out the various issues (rent, improvements, etc. etc. etc.) that need to get worked out before we can move forward.
I have little doubt that every winery that opens a tasting room has to go through a similar travail. But, as with pretty much everything else, the burden on a small winery is greater. The costs and work are similar, but that cost must be supported by a much smaller operation. And a larger enterprise has access to many resources to help the process along. For us, it’s pretty much me.
I’m still optimistic I can make this happen, one way or the other. But the idea that you just rent some space somewhere and start pouring is light-years away from what you really have to go through.