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Mass. farmer-wineries decry change to law

Jonathan Carr of Carr’s Ciderhouse would be hurt by not being able to distribute his cider to retailers.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

From his idyllic orchard in Hadley overlooking the Connecticut River Valley, Jonathan Carr uses a century-old press to make an elegant sparkling cider and other apple drinks that he delivers himself to liquor stores, jamming 30 cases at a time into his Pontiac hatchback.

In a few weeks, though, Carr risks being a modern-day bootlegger, as the law in Massachusetts that allows small “farmer-wineries” to distribute their own wine and ciders to stores and restaurants will abruptly expire — by accident. At a time when the local-food movement is hugely popular, it will be illegal for some 34 Massachusetts wine- and cider-makers to deliver to retailers in their own state.


“It would be a bone-crusher,” said Kip Kumler, who self-distributes hundreds of cases of wine he produces at Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln. “God knows what would happen to my business.”

In July, Massachusetts lawmakers mistakenly dropped the longstanding provision permitting such sales when they changed state law to make it easier for out-of-state vineyards to ship wine directly to consumers. No one is quite sure how the self-distribution provision was removed; legislators insisted it was a mistake. The law in question only deals with wine and cider, not beer.

But with the new rules set to go into effect Jan. 1, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a fix before the end of the year.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Carr, whose Carr’s Ciderhouse makes sparkling ciders using specially bred varieties of apples with high sugar content. He also makes an after-dinner drink, Apple Pommeau, a cider fortified with apple brandy.

Wine- and cider-makers noticed the problem late last month, when the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, or ABCC, sent them an advisory explaining the new direct shipping rules. Under the new rules, farmer-wineries can get a license to ship directly to consumers. But if they want to continue selling to stores and restaurants, they would now have to go through one of the state’s alcohol distributors, who might be uninterested in taking on the low-volume businesses.


State Representative John Scibak, a Democrat from South Hadley who cochairs the committee that oversees the alcohol industry, said he is working to have the Legislature quickly correct the mistake.

Because of the complexity of the state’s alcohol laws, legislators aren’t sure if they can simply restore the expiring provision without creating another problem elsewhere. They do not want to dismantle the new system for direct-shipping. They also don’t want to make it easy for virtually any vineyard, regardless of size, to distribute their products to retailers on their own. The bedrock of the state’s alcohol regulations requires most producers, particularly the large ones, to distribute their drinks through wholesalers.

One additional wrinkle: Federal and local courts have ruled that state alcohol laws cannot treat in-state and out-of-state wineries differently. The Massachusetts ABCC lost two lawsuits, one in 2005 and another in 2010, about previous rules that gave an edge to Massachusetts wineries.

“We’ve had this right for almost 40 years, and with the stroke of a pen it was taken away,” said David Roberts Jr., a wine-maker at Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod. “I’ll have to call 200 customers and tell them I can’t service them. Those are calls I definitely don’t want to make.”


So far, no one is opposed to rectifying the situation. National wine industry groups, which had long lobbied Massachusetts lawmakers to ease rules for direct shipment, said they never wanted in-state wineries to lose the right to self-distribute.

“The last thing we wanted was to penalize local wineries,” said Carol Martel, Northeastern counsel for the Wine Institute, a coalition of California wine-makers. “They’re absolutely right to be upset.”

Massachusetts has a modest but growing number of farmer-wineries, a broad legal designation that also includes the state’s approximately seven hard-cider-makers. According to the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, Massachusetts farmer-wineries made nearly 135,000 gallons of wine and hard cider worth $9.3 million in 2010, the most recent available data. Most are small; only four made more than 10,000 gallons in 2010.

While hopeful the fix will be in place before the new year, Kumler said the flap underlines the complexity of state alcohol regulations.

“We have a body of conflicting statutes, statutes no one can understand, and statutes from the end of Prohibition that no one can remember why they were written,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable mess.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.