By Shauna Neidigh
Things are looking better, but with two more steps to go, Nashoba Valley Winery remains at risk of losing its pouring or farming licenses to continue operating as it has for the past 16 years if an amendment is not passed by the state senate by the end of this month.
The winery has been engaged in a four-month battle, reaching all the way to the governor, to continue to allow both types of licenses to support farm-to-table enterprises.
The House of Representatives passed an amendment on July 7 to allow both types of licenses. The amendment now needs approval from the senate and then Governor Charlie Baker, who has voiced support of legislation to ensure farming and serving that is direct to consumers.
The controversy began in March, when the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) notified winery owner Richard Pelletier that it would not renew the winery’s pouring and farming manufacturing licenses at the end of the year. These were licenses the ABCC had issued and renewed without incident for 16 years.
Citing a state law dating back to the Prohibition era that prohibits an owner from having a pouring license for a restaurant as well as farming manufacturing licenses concurrently, the ABCC said Nashoba Valley could renew either the pouring license to serve alcohol at J’s Restaurant at the winery or the farming licenses to operate the orchard and produce their wine, beers and spirits. Effectively, Nashoba Valley Winery could either make wine or serve wine, but not both.
Pelletier and his attorney, John Connell, argued that Nashoba Valley is within compliance under the section of law passed in 2004, allowing a farm to pour its own wine, beer or spirits on the premises. However, the ABCC disagreed. According to its interpretation of the law, alcohol can only be poured on the same premises where it was made, and therefore the restaurant, a separate building 50 feet away from the distillery, was not considered the same premises.
The ABCC did offer a work-around: Either join the buildings on the farm’s 52 acres in one structure or put the restaurant under another person’s name.
“Both of these potential solutions would create more zoning, legal and costly business problems,” Connell said in a recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, affirming what Pelletier told the Lowell Sun in an interview published June 23: that the cost of building connection points between the two operations would be prohibitive.
ABCC’s reinterpretation of the law set off a flurry of activity to save the business. Pelletier said he contacted state senators and representatives seeking help, with no resolution. He then filed a lawsuit and garnered the attention of the media. Supporters used social media, petitions and emails to increase awareness of the issue. NPR’s Morning Edition covered the story. Then The Boston Globe and the Lowell Sun followed suit.
Gov. Baker was quoted in the June 27 issue of the Lowell Sun as saying, “I don’t understand why after 16 years this decision was made, and I think it’s one where if there’s a legal question we should solve it by challenging the legislation, and if it’s an administrative issue we should solve it through a legal process, but one way or another I think this sends a bad message to small businesses and a bad message to farmers, both of whom I care a lot about.”
State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who oversees the state’s alcohol regulators, stepped in to draft legislation that the House has passed and is awaiting senate and governor approval. Goldberg is now preparing a review of the state’s liquor laws and regulations.
“We’ve been building on a post-Prohibition law with little fixes here and there, but we need to do more than technical fixes after there’s been a problem,” Goldberg said in the July 8 issue of The Boston Globe. “We want to try to anticipate the market, and ask, ‘What does a 21st-century alcohol law look like?’”
In the process to appeal the ABCC’s decision, Nashoba Valley Winery incurred $20,000 in legal fees, according to Pelletier, who said he has dedicated the past months to legal issues rather than focusing on farming.
“I’m disappointed it happened. It’s been a very expensive experience,” said Pelletier. “I don’t understand why government has to pick on small business and waste taxpayer money.”
Meanwhile, Pelletier said, “We’re still sitting around not able to book weddings for 2017. It’s a nice gesture, but its only one step out of three. If not passed by the end of July, before the senate breaks, we’re still sitting around waiting. And, you know the legislature; it may never pass.”
The senate session ends on July 31 and is scheduled to reconvene Jan. 3, 2017. In odd years, the senate is in session through mid-November, but in election years, such as this, the session ends early to allow for campaigning.