Sampling Errors: Small shops seek control over wine tastings

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Danielle Middlebrook and Craig Dziadowicz opened Hidden Track Bottle Shop in downtown Phoenix in July 2015. They’re supporting a bill that would give them more flexibility with wine tastings. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Last New Year’s Eve, the owners of a small wine shop in downtown Phoenix wanted to thank their customers by having a wine tasting.

But the distributor in charge of the event was an hour late to a two hour tasting, leaving customers waiting and causing some to leave, said Hidden Track Bottle Shop owner Danielle Middlebrook.
“As a business owner, it really took the wind out of our sails, to be feeling such a heartfelt thanks to our customers and then just to really have it blow up in our faces for nothing that we could have done,” Middlebrook said.

Middlebrook and her partner, Craig Dziadowicz, opened Hidden Track at 111 W. Monroe St., last July, hoping to introduce unique wines to the city and become a community gathering spot.
They hold tastings twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays, but, according to Arizona liquor laws, they’re required to have distributors bring in their products and conduct those tastings, Middlebrook said. The process takes control away from the owners, especially in situations such as what happened on New Year’s Eve, she said.

Normally, the distributors’ tastings work out well, she said. But when it doesn’t – if a distributor forgets to file the proper paperwork, doesn’t file paperwork on time, gets stuck in traffic or gets sick – it’s painful for a small business, Middlebrook said.

“Most of the time, it’s a successful outcome. It’s just that when it isn’t, we lose a lot of credibility and it makes it look like we don’t have ourselves together, when the reality is, we have painstakingly gone through a myriad of different steps,” she said.

A bill proposed by Rep. T.J. Shope could help Middlebrook and Dziadowicz.

The Coolidge Republican’s HB2182 would get rid of a requirement in state law that says a beer and wine store must have a 5,000 squarefoot building in order to be able to conduct its own sampling.
In practice, Middlebrook says the bill would allow her to open a bottle of wine from the store’s shelves if the distributor tasting didn’t work out for some reason. She could also curate wines from the shop for a more creative tasting if she wants.

The 5,000 squarefoot requirement, which grocery stores or wine retailers such as Total Wine or BevMo would reach, “seems to benefit the large companies against maybe some homegrown Arizona businesses,” Shope said.

He said he hasn’t quite been able to figure out why the requirement is on the books in the first place.
“Nobody from Total Wine or even the grocery stores or the BevMo world has reached out at all, which leads me to believe that nobody really knows why the 5,000 squarefoot number is there,” Shope said.
Lee Hill, communications director for the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, said in an email that the bill would simply remove the 5,000 squarefoot language, so it would allow places like convenience stores or gas stations to have tastings, too.

She said she hasn’t tracked how the provision became a law, but it’s been on the books for the nine years she has worked at the department.

“After asking persons involved in the liquor industry for decades, my understanding of the purpose of the square footage requirement is to allow sampling in larger retail locations, eliminating convenience markets and gas stations,” Hill said.

Rep. Juan Mendez, (D)Tempe, said he was concerned about the possibility that convenience stores could sample beer and wine, if they wanted to.

“I don’t want to go to convenience stores that are everywhere and have them sampling the latest booze and energy drink thing,” Mendez said while voting against the bill in the House Rural and Economic Development Committee.

An amendment from Shope during the House Committee of the Whole session on Feb. 17 clarified that a beer and wine store under 5,000 squarefeet would still need to have 75 percent of its shelves dedicated to liquor in order to do samplings, which would likely exclude gas stations and convenience stores.

The bill passed the House Rural and Economic Development committee on a 53 vote on Feb. 2. It awaits a formal vote of the House before heading to Senate. If the bill becomes law, Middlebrook said the shop doesn’t plan to stop working with distributors to put on tastings, but they want to have a safeguard to make sure customers won’t lose out on trying wines if something goes wrong.

“We worked really hard to build this business. It’s a labor of love. It is tough as a business owner to do everything that’s within your control and still have the outcome fail for reasons beyond your control,” she said.

Sampling errors_ Small shops seek control over wine tastings _ Arizona Capitol Times