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Sonoma County distillers seek to end anti-tasting law

Amy and Fred Groth, founders of HelloCello and Prohibition Spirits, sell lines of whiskey and liqueurs.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 6:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:34 a.m.

Fred and Amy Groth want desperately to pour you a drink.

It's all set up in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Sonoma where bottles of alcoholic “cellos” infused with lemons, oranges and figs, along with Hooker's House Bourbon, line the bar.

Want to see how it's made? Fred pulls the lid off a tank where hundreds of lemon rinds soak in brandy sourced from local grapes. The aroma is sweet and tart.

It's also about as close as you're going to get to sampling the wares. Unlike vintners and brewers, California distillers are prohibited from letting the public sample their products under a Prohibition-era law that critics say is outdated and unfair.

“It would be nice to share our story with the general public,” Amy Groth said Thursday. “We like to say we put the spirit in Sonoma.”

HelloCello, the company the Groths founded in 2008, is among three distillers in Sonoma County, and 30 statewide, that have banded together to change the law so they can offer public tastings and sell their products at the distilleries.

The group, calling itself the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, is in the process of retaining the Sacramento lobbying firm of DiMare, Van Vleck and Brown to represent its interests.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, intends to introduce legislation on the group's behalf, said Dominic DiMare, a principal with the lobbying firm, which also represents Safeway, Best Buy and Mattel, among others.

Standing in the way of distillers is the powerful alcohol wholesale and distribution lobby and public attitudes about the hard stuff.

Despite a resurgence in the popularity of bygone booze-bombs such as Manhattans, a trend juiced by TV shows such as “Mad Men,” there still are those who view whiskey and the like as devil's water, and cringe at the idea of having it sampled like merlot.

Asked about fears that the changes he is seeking will put more drunken drivers on the road, Fred Groth replied, “When a cop pulls you over, do they ask you if you've been drinking wine, beer or vodka? They ask you if you've been drinking.”

It's the amount of alcohol, not the type, that matters when it comes to responsible consumption, Groth said. The general rule is that 1 ½ ounces of hard alcohol equals five ounces of wine and 12 ounces of beer.

Fred Groth said he supports limiting tastes of his products to no more than three quarter-ounce pours.

“You don't want to get people drunk,” he said.

Silas Miers, the program manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in California, said he could not say at this time whether the organization would oppose the efforts of distillers.

But he said in general, MADD does not take a position on how alcohol is sold “so long as it is not sold to people who are under 21.”

Fred Groth had a stable job as a mapping consultant with the oil and gas industry and his wife as an event planner when the couple made the bold decision to leave Colorado and move to Sonoma with their three kids, including twin boys, in tow.

The couple had long enjoyed making their own Limoncello. After visiting Sonoma on vacation, they thought it the ideal place to embark on a new career as distillers. It took them nearly a year to get their license.

They've succeeded beyond their expectations, growing HelloCello to include whisky and rum. They also are planning to introduce fruit-based brandies they plan to make with a custom still they are going to purchase with $23,000 the couple raised through Kickstarter, an online donation site.

But the Groths believe California's limitations on distillers have stymied more growth. A small sign for a “distillery” is the only thing marking the location of the Eighth Street East facility, where bourbon crafted in Kentucky is “finished” off in wine barrels.

“We get about four calls a week from people asking to taste our products. We tell them we can't,” Fred Groth said.

Only Nevada, Alaska and Mississippi have prohibitions similar to California's. The irony is that had the Groths stayed in Colorado they would be able to let people taste their offerings.

California's rules were spawned nearly 80 years ago when the state's lawmakers created “fair trade laws” governing alcohol production and sales.

So-called “tied-house” rules were meant to level the playing field and head off a monopoly by separating the liquor trade into three groups — producers, wholesalers and retailers. But critics say the rules do not benefit everyone the same.

The largest of the nation's wholesalers, Southern Wine & Spirits, also was the 30th largest privately held company in the U.S. as recently as 2010, with revenues of $8.6 billion, according to Forbes.

The company, which has strenuously opposed changes in the liquor distribution model, did not respond Thursday to messages seeking comment.

Skinner's staff also did not respond to messages Thursday.

DiMare stressed that California's craft distillers are seeking a change that would allow them to sell their products only at the distillery or in tasting rooms, not at places such as BevMo! or Safeway.

“They rely on distributors and wholesalers to do that,” he said.

DiMare predicted that if the proposed changes are limited to that, the group has “a very good chance” of succeeding where others have failed.

Still, Fred Groth has no illusions about his chances of one day giving his customers a taste of what he and his wife labor to produce.

“I think the odds are better than they've ever been. But I'm aware of what we're up against,” he said.

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