By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — At a Wednesday evening farmers market last month, there was drinking and merriment as representatives from local wineries and breweries offered free tastings to thirsty marketgoers. This practice of offering samples to patrons who are 21 or older is legal under state law. However, none of the vendors present were allowed to sell their adult beverages.
A bill (pdf) introduced recently at the Statehouse in Providence is looking to change that. A similar bill introduced last year passed the House but died in a Senate committee.
The legislation models itself on a 2010 Massachusetts law, which allows wineries to sell directly at farmers markets and other agricultural events.
Last March, Massachusetts reported a 66 percent increase in local wine sales due to the expansion of sales at farmers markets.
The Rhode Island bill would allow local wineries and "farmer breweries" to offer free samples — up to five 1-ounce cups per customer — at indoor and outdoor farmers markets. A special license is required. The bill also sets yet-to-be determined guidelines for farmer-brewers. A new license would also allow sales of locally brewed beer at farms.
Vermont, New York, North Carolina and Washington permit craft beer sales at farmers markets. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania also have recently introduced bills to allow local beer makers to sell at farmers markets.
In Rhode Island, the bill is expected to receive opposition from the Rhode Island Beverage Association. It fears the markets will hijack sales from traditional liquor retailers.
In a phone conversation with ecoRI News earlier this month, one of the bill's sponsors Rep. Jared Nunes, D-Coventry, acknowledged the bill's likely opponents, saying, "This bill does nothing to undercut Budweiser's business. Most people in the state don't solely shop at farmers markets for all their produce or alcohol."
The bill was referred to the House Corporations Committee. A hearing for the bill is set for Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 5 p.m. in the House Corporations Committee room.