The recent cancellation of the historic Napa Classic underscores the problems home wine and beer makers are having with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
For fans of the old Barney Google comic strip, his backwoods pal Snuffy Smith was always on the lookout for “revenooers” – the government agents charged with ending the illicit trade in booze.
The California Alcohol Beverage Control agency is a revenue bureau. Their task is to generate as much money as possible from alcohol-related trade.
Some $64 million is spent each year by home winemakers and brewers and very little of it is collected in taxes and fees by the ABC, hence their actions to curtail these activities.
California is not alone in facing these restrictions. Revenue-strapped governments at every level are seeking ways to cash in on this growing hobby.
In 2008 threats to close homemade wine and beer festivals were circumvented by the passage of SB 607, which specifically authorized nonprofit groups to remove their products from the place of manufacture for the purposes of use at “organized affairs, exhibitions or competitions, such as home wine makers contests, tastings or judging.”
This not only brought California into compliance with federal regulations, but also removed the major basis being used by the ABC to restrict these activities.
Since all county fairs, plus the state fair were threatened by ABC rulings, passage of SB 607 was greeted statewide with a wave of appreciation.
The bill also specified that no license or fees would be necessary to engage in these activities, although our own Lake County Home Wine and Beer Makers Festival continued to purchase a permit just to keep peace in the family
Since both federal and state laws specifically prohibit the sale of amateur alcoholic products, we followed the rules religiously, as did, we believe, other similar organizations, to make sure nothing involving our homemade products could be construed as a sale.
Even so it is only human nature that bureaucrats would find ways to reinterpret or circumvent the laws in order to generate a new stream of revenue from these increasingly popular activities.
For example, Jacob Applesmith, the current director of the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, found an interpretation of the law that had evidently eluded some 80-plus years of his predecessors.
Applesmith asserted that charging an admission fee to nonprofit sponsored “organized affairs, exhibitions or competitions” was tantamount to selling the tastings taking place.
Applesmith’s conclusion has resulted in the cancellation of the decades old Napa Classic home wine makers’ festival, which was the major support for the Dry Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
Only the wholehearted support of our local commercial wineries allowed Clear Lake Performing Arts to continue with a restructured event, with funds earned supporting music programs in Lake County including our Symphony and Youth Orchestras, and young peoples music education programs.
A careful study of the laws governing alcohol beverages in California shows little to support Applesmith’s contention. Yet it appears only an amendment to SB 607 clearly specifying that purchase of an admission to such events is NOT to be construed as a sale, will we be able to reinstate our own Lake County Home Wine and Beer Makers Festival, the Napa Classic, and others like it.
A message to your elected official urging their support of such an amendment would help lead to a favorable resolution of this problem and restore these nonprofit events that are so vital the health of our communities.
Connel Murray is chair of the Chair, CLPA Wine Committee. He lives in Kelseyville, Calif.