Legislators ponder palatable bill

Fruit of the vine or the 'Grapes of Wrath'

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— A bill making its way through the Colorado Legislature would allow retail liquor stores to provide customers free samples of beer, wine and liquor sort of like little chunks of free breakfast sausage skewered on toothpicks at the grocery store only different.

State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said he voted for House Bill 1209 as it passed the State Senate on second reading Tuesday. If the bill passes an upcoming third reading it would go to Gov. Bill Owens' desk for his signature unless last minute amendments send it back to the House. State Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, said he too supported the bill in its present form.

White pointed out that 26 states already allow retail liquor stores to offer their customers free samples, but none of them afford the degree of local control offered in the bill sponsored by State Rep. Rob Fairbank of Jefferson County. Any county, city or town that wanted to opt out of the provisions of the bill could do so by passing an ordinance or resolution, White said. And the bill also gives local government the freedom to add more restrictions to the practice of giving out free samples.

Taylor said he thinks the local control afforded by the bill offers ample checks and balances. He said the bill provides that each customer could have no more than four free samples, and that each store could host free samplings no more than four days a week and no more than 104 days in a year.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has gone on record in opposition to the bill and Sen. Douglas Lamborn R-Colorado Springs, expressed concern the bill does not do enough to prevent people from going store to store and getting free drinks.

However, White said he doesn't think it's realistic to think that people would go from store to store to get a free beer one ounce at a time.

Steamboat Springs wine expert and retailer John Marshall emphasized the idea behind liquor-store tastings is not to serve drinks, but to educate consumers about the qualities of different wines.

"You would not want it to become a thing where people would come in and drink," Marshall said. "That wouldn't do us any good at all. It is not an occasion to drink."

Instead, Marshall said, in other states where in-store tasting is already allowed, the emphasis is on working one-on-one with customers who sample wine to learn what it tastes like.

"It's just a taste, it's not a drink," Marshall said.

Steamboat Springs Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays said he is aware of the bill, but not familiar enough with it to comment.

"It would be the first time I've experienced it," Hays said of the practice of giving free samples of alcoholic beverages.

Sheriff John Warner said he was unaware of the bill and registered frustration that he hadn't received notice of it from a statewide association of county sheriffs that monitors legislative activities.

Marshall said he would be eager to host samplings in order to expose customers to more of his varieties of wine.

"I would have done this 25 years ago. From a retailer's point of view, it's a great way to educate the consumer on very different products. I have 1,000 different wines."

White said Tuesday he was opposed to the measure in its original form. But now supports the amended bill and voted to pass it out of the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee.

"I was originally opposed to it for a variety of reasons,"White said.

White said his biggest concern with the original bill was a provision that would allow wholesalers to provide the wine, beer or liquor for tastings free to retailers. Currently, it's against the law for wholesalers to give product away, White said. He worried that the wine tasting bill would essentially allow wholesalers to purchase shelf space and dictate to small retailers by providing a limited amount of product for free.

That provision has been changed White said. Wholesalers can be present at the tastings to answer questions, but retailers must purchase the product and their own employees must do the pouring.

Lisa Lesyshen of the newly opened Vino wine shop on Lincoln Avenue said she thinks in-store tasting, done properly will aid customers in making decisions about wine, and also help her close sales.

"It's going to be a huge help. If people taste it, they're much more likely to buy it," Lesyshen said. "If people come in and say, 'we're having pork for dinner tonight, they can taste a wine to go with it instead of just trusting my judgment."

Lesyshen said in-store tasting is already common in California. In Idaho, she said, customers can purchase a bottle of wine and the store can open it for them there.

Ted Heid of Sundance Liquor said he thinks the ability to serve free samples actually fits into today's era of more conservative consumption of alcohol. People are drinking less today, but are willing to purchase expensive bottles of liquor, he said.

"It could be the only chance somebody has to try a $20 bottle of wine instead of the $10 bottle they're used to," Heid said.

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