Local Beer and Wine Takes on R.I. Alcohol Lobby

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Local beer and wine isn’t being sold yet at farmers markets because some of Rhode Island’s most formidable lobbyists are opposing a bill (pdf) that would allow such sales.

At the bill’s first hearing on Feb. 5, lobbyists and store owners said the proposal threatens the profits of liquor stores. “It takes from one industry group and tries to give to another,” said Robert Goldberg of the United Independent Liquor Retailers of Rhode Island. “This is a big-business bill.”

The legislation, Goldberg said, bypasses the state’s “three-tiered” system that requires makers of beer, wine and spirits to only sell their products through wholesale distributors. Some exceptions are allowed — brewpubs and wineries are permitted to sell from their establishments.

Beer and wine tasting are currently allowed at Rhode Island farmers market, but sales are not permitted. In recent years, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New York approved sales of beer and/or wine.  

The bill only allows vintners and beer makers who grow most of their own ingredients to sell at farmers markets. Rep. Jared Nunes, D-Coventry, the sponsor of he legislation, said the bill supports the makers of small batches of wine or beer.

Brian Goldman of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Rhode Island argued that large national wineries would take advantage of the program, “You conceivably could have Gallo (wine company) come in and sell at these farmers markets,” he said. “There are people out there who want to dismantle the system.”

Sarah Lester, manager of 11 farmers markets for Farm Fresh Rhode Island, said there is demand for locally made wine and beer at the state’s 50 or so farmers markets. The legislation also gives farmers another opportunity to stay in business, she said.

Matt Richardson, owner of Ocean State Hops, grows 1-acre of hops on his farm in Exeter. If the legislation passes, he said, he would expand the crop to meet demand for hops from local brewers. The economic growth, he explained, would not just benenfit farmers markets but spur growth in agriculture. 

Most members of the House Corporation Committee spoke favorably of the bill. Nunes, a member of the committee, said the legislation will be revised before a second hearing is held.