Industry

Massachusetts: Treasurer seeks overhaul of 'unwieldy' Mass. alcohol laws

By Dan Adams July 11, 2016
bostonglobe.com
Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who oversees the state's alcohol regulators, is set to launch a sweeping review of the state's liquor laws and regulations, calling the current rules outdated, unclear, and burdensome for businesses.

The ambitious effort will be led by a task force of brewers, distillers, winemakers, wholesalers, retailers, and legal experts to be convened this fall. The group will be asked to produce recommendations for legislators to consider next year.

"We've been building on a post-Prohibition law with little fixes here and there, but we need to do more than technical fixes after there's been a problem," Goldberg said. "We want to try to anticipate the market, and ask, 'What does a 21st-century alcohol law look like?'

"Goldberg's vow follows an embarrassing flap involving Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton. The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission told Nashoba's owner earlier this year that he could not keep his production licenses if he also renewed his licenses for serving his beers, wines, and spirits at a restaurant on the grounds of the farm.

Nashoba sued the ABCC and went to the media with its plight, prompting backlash from the public and officials including Governor Charlie Baker.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a measure suggested by Goldberg to allow Nashoba and similar companies to hold both license types. Lawmakers also approved a similar fix to allow Eataly, the Italian food emporium coming to the Prudential Center, to both serve alcohol on-site and sell bottles to take home.

Those are only the latest in a series of minor crises and controversies over the state's convoluted liquor laws.

In 2011, the ABCC said so-called farmer-breweries needed to source at least 50 percent of their grains and hops from within Massachusetts, which would have put numerous breweries out of business. Then-treasurer Steven Grossman relented after an uproar.

In 2014, when legislators passed a law allowing consumers to mail-order wine from vineyards in other states, they accidentally deleted a provision allowing local farmer-wineries to distribute their own wine and cider. The problem required an emergency legislative fix.

And after years of rarely enforcing trade rules, the ABCC has scrambled to stamp out the rampant practice of pay-to-play, in which distributors pay off bars to carry certain beers.

The state also retains odd rules and old "blue laws." For example: It is technically illegal to buy a six-pack of beer in New Hampshire and bring it into Massachusetts without a special permit. The Legislature is considering overturning the ban on selling alcohol the Monday after Christmases that fall on Sunday.

Goldberg said the task force will also consider beefing up the ABCC, which has 15 inspectors to police more than 30,000 licensees.

"When I tell people in other states how few inspectors we have, their eyes pop out," Goldberg said.

To succeed, task force members will need to set aside past animosity - brewers and beer distributors in particular have been at odds for years. Then, its members will need to untangle a set of complex laws and suggest ways to streamline them. Some changes could be implemented through new regulations, but major reforms would have to be enacted by legislators.

Despite those steep challenges, Rob Martin, president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, was cautiously optimistic.

"We're working with 85-year-old regulations that don't necessarily have any bearing on the landscape today. They hinder business and don't serve the public interest," said Martin, owner of Ipswich Ale Brewery. "If there's no chance brewers are going to lose any rights in these discussions, we can move forward."

The U.S. Wine Market
Wine shipments to the U.S. from all production sources—California, other states and foreign producers—grew to 384 million cases, up 2% from 2014, with an estimated retail value of $55.8 billion. The U.S. has been the largest wine consuming nation in the world since 2010. California's 229 million cases shipped within the U.S. in 2015 represent a 60% share of the U.S. wine market.

Sparkling Wine and Champagne
Shipments of sparkling wine and champagne to the U.S. reached 21.7 million cases in 2015, up 9% over the previous year. The category appears to be growing at a healthy rate since the U.S. started emerging from the 2008 recession.