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Law elicits head-scratching response
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BY MECHELE COOPER
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 08/24/2009

BY MECHELE COOPER

Staff Writer

Families normally wouldn't take a child to a wine tasting.

But in the Belgrade Lakes, tourists stop in the Bacchus House of Wine to sample and buy with their tots in tow.

Beth Hudson, who owns the shop, said she always accepted that children could be part of the experience.

But that will soon change.

A new law that goes into effect Sept. 12 will prohibit children from observing wine tastings.

Hudson said she isn't sure how to comply with that. Her Main Street wine shop has ceiling-to-floor windows and glass doors. The windows have blinds that she could close, but an inspector from the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement & Licensing told her that is not acceptable.

"I said I could close the blinds, and he said no," Hudson said. "I would have to partition off or put up some draperies. Look at my store. How am I supposed to do that? We usually have (wine tastings) in front of the fireplace, and we serve cheese and crackers. In order to do that, people would have to be cramped in a smaller space. It would appear like the adults were doing something shameful.

"If they don't want children seeing people drinking, why do they allow them in restaurants?"

An amendment to L.D. 498 by Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, states, "Taste-testing activities must be conducted in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children."

In the final days of the last legislation session, Webster said, a bill came forward that would allow not only wine tastings, but beer and hard-liquor tastings in any off-premises retail including grocery stores.

No changes were made to the laws allowing children in liquor stores or restaurants that serve alcohol.

Webster said it was never his intention to hurt small wine shops; his amendment was supposed to target large grocery stores where families shop with children.

"So I and a number of other legislators were concerned regarding the idea that grocery stores will have families going into them to shop and seeing adults standing around drinking hard liquor," Webster said.

"There was supposed to be an exemption for small retail stores. (The negotiations) were quick with several people weighing in on how it was to be and a drafting error was made. We wound up with language that inadvertently scooped the wine shops. We're working as fast as we can to fix that."

Unfortunately, the only way to modify the law is in legislative session and the next one doesn't start until January, he said. So the law will go into effect Sept. 12.

"We're scheduled to go back in January, but unless there's a special session there's no way of changing this," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to reduce the adverse impact. No one is disputing that we've got to fix this."

Lt. David Bowler, of the Department of Maine Public Safety Liquor Licensing and Inspections Unit, said he understands where Webster was "coming from" when he added the amendment to the bill regarding children. He agrees the provision is a burden for small wine shop owners.

"They will have to cover up the windows and not allow children in the stores from this hour to that hour," Bowler said. "If they put up a giant curtain, who's to say a 5- or 6-year-old won't peek around the corner. But this bill has more issues than that. It needs some adjustments in the language."

He said wording in the new law also makes it difficult for wine, beer and spirits retailers to acquire permits to conduct tastings.

"The way they word it is, if someone wanted to do the spirits tasting, they have to have 200 codes ... say a fifth of Jim Bean is one code, a pint would be one code and little airport-size bottle another code," he said. "The wine tasting is 125 labels and beer is 100 different brands. They should have worded it in either codes or labels. And we've discussed brands. What is a brand? Is a brand Budweiser or everything that falls under it? Is Bud Light a brand? At some point, we're going to have to get a ruling from the Attorney General's Office to tell us what is considered a brand."

Craig McCabe, inspector for the Maine Bureau of Liquor, said many of the retailers he inspects are having a difficult time coming up with 100 brands of beer in order to get a permit for tastings.

"They could come up with a 100 codes or labels a little easier," McCabe said. "If you're a small place, it will be really hard to get 100 brands of beer. Some places don't want to do the normal everyday beer, but the high-end quality stuff. And that's going to be even more difficult."

At the Bacchus House of Wine, Hudson said she will not only have to board up her windows, but the inspector told her she would have to post signs telling parents their children are not welcome and hire someone to stand by the door during wine tastings.

"We had a wine tasting this weekend and a couple with a baby stroller came in," she said. "They would have had to leave the baby on the street or I guess the parents could take turns."

Mechele Cooper -- 623-3811,

ext. 408

mcooper@centralmaine.com

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