Jul 2, 2013
Markets connect winemakers, buyers

Farmers’ markets are becoming the latest marketing outlet for the winemakers who are able to offer tastings and sales to prospective customers.

In early June, Michigan was preparing to join at least eight other states in allowing the practice, which is seen as a boon for wine sellers and the state’s estimated 300 farmers’ markets. For the most part, wineries had previously been allowed to showcase their products but didn’t have the ability to entice purchasers with a sample of their offerings.

A measure was moving through the Michigan Legislature, on its way to an expected signing by Gov. Rick Snyder, that would limit the tastings and sales to winemakers who produce 5,000 gallons a year or less – which would allow about 60 of the state’s 100-plus winemakers to take part.
Jen O’Brien, interim executive director of the Virginia-based Farmers Market Coalition, said Washington, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, Maryland, Oregon, New York and Virginia are among states allowing alcohol sales and sampling at farmers’ markets.

“Selling alcohol isn’t the right fit for every farmers’ market, but markets that are focused on increasing the awareness and consumption of value-added products in their state consider including local wine and beer,” O’Brien said. “Small, local wineries and breweries contribute to the agricultural success of the whole region, and farmers’ markets benefit from having a diverse array of products to offer their customers. Allowing tastings further improves a winery’s ability to promote itself and increase sales.”

Just as any other vendor is required to be clear where their product came from and how it was produced, it’s important that farmers’ markets are clear about the origin of the wine and beer sold, O’Brien said.

“Many markets require that alcohol be created from local hops/grapes/ produce at a local facility by a local owner,” O’Brien noted. “Maintaining transparency and accountability is key to the success of farmers’ markets, regardless of what type of products are being sold.”

O’Brien acknowledged that local regulations may come into play – the permits and licensing required will vary by locality.

“Additionally, some states require that anyone pouring samples takes a class, or receives a special certification,” she said.

For the past eight years, Washington state farmers’ markets have been allowed to sell full bottles of wine, hard cider and beer made from Washington grapes, fruit or key ingredients, by the vintner/cidery or microbrewer.

“The state recently had a wine sampling at farmers’ markets pilot that was a big success,” O’Brien said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was preparing to sign into law a bill that would allow wine and beer tasting at farmers’ markets. The plan to allow customers to sample alcoholic beverages from in-state wineries, breweries and microbreweries at the markets was fortified by a pilot program that went from September 2011 through October 2012. Ten farmers’ markets were selected to provide geographic variety, and approximately 16 wineries and four microbreweries were allowed to participate.

The program became so popular that the Washington State Farmers Market Association and the Washington Wine Institute, representing 150 wineries, made it a priority to pass the permanent legislation.

June 1 marked the date Maryland wineries were able to sell wine and other samples at the 131 markets listed in the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Directory. A new off-site permit removed previous county-by-county restrictions and limits the number of markets a winery may attend. The new process shifted the permitting burden off the markets and onto the wineries.

Maryland markets must invite a winery to sell their products, and participants may not sell wine by the glass.

“This permit is a great example of the industry and state working together to promote local wines to customers already focused on buying other locally grown products,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. “We hope to turn locavours into locapours via farmers’ markets.”

In Michigan, State Sen. Goeff Hansen sponsored measures enabling qualifying winemakers to purchase a new farmers’ market permit. The fee for an annual market permit was set at $25 for each location. Each winemaker could purchase one permit for every 1,500 residents of the county in which the winemaker is located.

The language also added small winemakers who hold a farmers’ market permit and are selling their wine at a farmers’ market to the list of individuals who can sell wine at retail.

“Michigan’s farmers’ markets exist to connect consumers with local food and the farmers who grow and produce it,” Hansen said. “This legislation promotes our state’s positive attributes and provides new opportunities for small businesses.”

The Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) was supportive of the pending wine allowances.

“One of our goals is to support policy initiatives within the state of Michigan that advance farmers’ markets, which involves increasing the awareness and consumption of value-added products that highlight Michigan’s diverse agricultural industry,” said Dru Montri, MIFMA’s director.

“The size limitations being put on wineries in these bills certainly limits the number of wineries that will be eligible to participate in Michigan farmers’ market sales,” Montri said. “We are hopeful that when wineries and farmers’ markets are able to work together to demonstrate success, there will be future opportunities for expansion based on lessons learned and best practices. Overall, we are hopeful that the House will pass these bills in time to allow wine sales at farmers’ markets yet this season.

MIFMA is prepared to work with state officials and the Michigan Wine and Grape Industry Council to develop guidelines for farmers’ markets that are considering wine sales, Montri said.

“Any chance to introduce our wines to a new customer stream that is open-minded about using local products is a win for our whole industry,” said Christian Moersch of Round Barn Winery, Brewery and Distillery in Baroda, Mich.

The operators of Eastern Market in Detroit welcomed the opportunity.

“We would be interested in promoting the sale of Michigan wines,” said Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp. “It goes with our mission of promoting regional food products. I know that the tasting of wines at farmers’ markets in New York City have greatly helped New York wineries.”

Carmody also opposes the limitations the allowances put on larger winemakers.

“I’m concerned about the size limit in allowing only very small wineries to set up at farmers’ markets,” he said. “I would have preferred a higher limit and I favor the same opportunities for microbreweries and distilleries.”

Candy Todd, market master for the Holland Farmers Market, said her community would welcome the wine tasting allowances, but not before securing local approvals.

“It will open another avenue for our shoppers,” Todd declared. “One-stop shopping. Now all we need is the cow (milk). We have everything else – and fresh.”

– Gary Pullano

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