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January 28, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Wine-tasting could expand to more farmers markets

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Care for a sip of Pinot Noir with that sack of foraged mushrooms? Want to sample a Chardonnay before deciding whether to take it home along with your ears of farm-fresh corn?

A pilot program allowing limited wine and beer samplings at 10 farmers markets around the state last year was enough of a success that the state Liquor Control Board is recommending the legislature expand the program and make it permanent. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), who proposed the initial bill, plans to introduce a bill to that effect.

Last year’s “baby steps” pilot allowed wine and beer samples of 2 ounces or less (most were less) in a designated tasting location where food was available and where staffers had alcohol server permits. No violations or public safety problems were reported from the trial, and all the participating markets said they’d like to see it continue. Nearly three-quarters of the participating wineries reported sales had significantly increased, and that more wineries and breweries wanted to sell at the markets because of the tastings option, the report said. One booth’s average sales of $500 to $600 dropped to $182 the first day customers could no longer sample the wine before deciding whether to buy it.

There were also some drawbacks, though they seemed more tied to the pilot’s limitations than to the overall idea. Of the 52 wineries and breweries eligible to participate in the pilot (they needed to have the necessary paperwork already in place), only 20 chose to take part. Reasons for not joining in included the cost and hassle of the long travel times to one of the chosen markets.

Only one vendor at a time was allowed to provide samples in the pilot, and the wineries and breweries had to be pre-authorized months in advance, which meant businesses who became interested late in the process were out of luck. The board suggested future market tastings allow up to three vendors at a time to provide samples, suggested expanding the program to most if not all markets in the state, as well as allowing some flexibility in the requirement that all samples contain Washington-grown grapes or hops, given that “some key ingredients are produced within regions that include portions of neighboring states.”

Local markets included in the pilot program were Magnolia, West Seattle, Everett, Pike Place, and Vashon Island. (One complaint from vendors was that the markets weren’t more evenly distributed around the state.) The full Liquor Control Board preliminary report to the legislature is online here.

File Pike Place Market photo by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

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