Business

Beer and wine tasting: State law opens door for Washington grocery stores

Cindy Payne, a Federal Way Fred Meyer wine steward, stands by a shelf of cabernet wines. Payne will conduct beer and wine tastings in Fred Meyer if the state
Cindy Payne, a Federal Way Fred Meyer wine steward, stands by a shelf of cabernet wines. Payne will conduct beer and wine tastings in Fred Meyer if the state's Liquor Control Board approves the grocery store's application.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

Several Washington state grocery stores are applying for a liquor endorsement to conduct beer and wine tastings.

In the 2010 legislative session, Senate Bill 6329 was passed. It was fashioned after a 2008 pilot program in which beer and wine tastings took place inside grocery stores. Among the applicants hoping to hold tastings are Federal Way's Fred Meyer, Trader Joe's and Top Foods.

Expanding services

The new law was passed in an effort to boost grocery stores' services. The tastings let customers experience a grocer's selection before committing to a purchase. Customers try products they may otherwise pass up and, if the store is lucky, they buy the items.

"It's a great way to get people to try new (varieties), especially the local craft breweries and wineries people may not be aware of," Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said.

Fred Meyer applied to conduct beer and wine tastings in 26 of its Washington stores. The stores feature wine stewards — staff members who are knowledgeable about wine and beer and travel to pursue new, popular and rare selections for their store. The grocer has experience conducting tastings in Oregon, home to Fred Meyer headquarters, and has found the events profitable, Merrill said.

"I think it's a good idea; I'd show up. I'd bring friends," said Selma McGuire, Federal Way resident and Fred Meyer shopper.

The opportunity to offer the service has caught on quickly. The Liquor Control Board had received 114 applications as of Aug. 16, said Anne Radford, Washington State Liquor Control Board spokeswoman. Of those, 45 had been approved as of that date. Federal Way's Top Foods is among the applicants given the go-ahead. Applications for Fred Meyer and Trader Joe's are pending. It generally takes 60 to 90 days for the board to approve or deny an application.

The rules

Conditions will apply. Only grocery stores with a retail space of at least 9,000 enclosed square feet may apply to conduct the tastings. Tastings will be performed in a restricted area. Samples must be 2 ounces or less, with a 4-ounce limit per customer per visit, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board. While consuming the alcohol, individuals must remain within the consumption area boundaries. Food must be available to consumers.

Other stipulations apply. The tastings cannot be advertised outside the store, with a few exceptions, such as on a website. A retailer with more than one public safety violation in the past two years will not qualify to conduct tastings, according to the liquor board. Additionally, staff serving the alcohol will first have to obtain a serving permit and learn to check IDs and recognize intoxicated customers.

The liquor board will monitor the approved locations. Each store given the go-ahead will make the liquor board aware of when the tastings will take place. The board's staff will attend some of the events to make sure they are being conducted appropriately, Radford said. Precautions will be taken to ensure minors are not served and adults are served safely, she said.

"The main thing is these tastings need to be carried out responsibly," Radford said.

Growing business

The goal of the tastings is to boost grocery store sales, not rake in revenue to help close the state's budget gap, Radford said. Each applicant pays a $200 up-front fee for the initial application and another $200 yearly for its renewal. The fees cover staff costs for processing the endorsement applications.

"Approving these does require employee time and effort," Radford said. "It's not a matter of revenue."

Public reaction

Public testimony before the Legislature was given while the pilot project was being considered in 2008. Those supporting the bill said it was a good way to determine what beers and wines customers prefer and to give customers an opportunity to expand their palates. On Aug. 26, Browns Point resident Emil Oana said he feels the tastings are a good idea, and said he would participate if Fred Meyer is approved to conduct them.

"We're always interested in wine," Oana said.

Those against the pilot project expressed their concern that the tastings send the message that the community supports alcohol consumption. Opponents of the project worried teens would be more likely to consume alcohol if they were to see it sampled in grocery stores, according to the SB 5751 Senate Bill Report.

Read the bill

To read Senate Bill 6329 in its entirety, visit http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=6329.

To read the pilot program bill report, visit http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5751&year=2008.

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