AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers are hoping to fix a 2-month-old law that was supposed to help Maine’s boutique beer and liquor stores but which instead has left some shops complaining of a regulatory hangover.
Earlier this year, legislators passed a bill authorizing stores that stocked a large variety of beer or liquor to stage up to a dozen taste testings a year. The idea was to give purveyors of specialty brews and spirits the same marketing tool that has helped Maine wine shops draw additional customers who like to try before they buy.
But a last-minute amendment that aimed to prevent children from having to watch adults sipping beer or bourbon in the middle of the supermarket — or in the aisle of some other large retailer — has inadvertently caused problems for the smaller specialty shops.
The amendment stated that all taste testings “must be conducted in a manner that precludes the possibility of observation by children.” The new law, which took effect Sept. 12, presents a challenge to shops with windows that could allow children to catch a glimpse of the activities inside.
Leslie Thistle of Bangor Wine and Cheese Co. said she has to cover her front and back door windows with black and drape a sheet across the large storefront windows, giving her shop the feel of a “speak-easy” during her monthly tastings.
The law also means that she could be found in violation if a parent with children in tow comes into her shop to purchase a bottle of wine during a tasting event. She also pointed out that there are no laws shielding children from the sight of people drinking alcohol while seated on a restaurant’s outdoor patio.
“It is a ludicrous, ludicrous law,” she said.
Other wine and beer shops have taken similar steps to cover their windows or discourage minors from seeing inside during an event. The law’s unintended consequences have drawn national attention from Web sites and blogs catering to wine lovers.
Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, has introduced legislation aimed at addressing the inadvertent problems. The Legislative Council, which reviews all bills proposed for the legislative session that begins in January, unanimously approved Fitts’ bill for consideration.
“Many stores that traditionally never had a problem conducting wine tastings are being hurt by this onerous requirement,” Fitts said in a statement. “My bill would instead mandate that a sign be placed at the entrance to an establishment when an event is being held, so all patrons are aware of the taste-testing.”
Thistle and other shop owners also hope the Legislature will loosen the restrictions that limit stores to a dozen taste testings in a year. The bill approved last year, LD 498, expanded the taste testings to beer and liquor establishments but kept the limit at a dozen events a year.
“Unless we were seasonal, that really doesn’t benefit us at all,” Thistle said.
In addition to regulating how taste testings are held, the law also restricts how much alcohol may be served to participants. Patrons may not be served a total of more than 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor throughout the event.
The law also prohibits serving anyone who is visibly intoxicated.