Paid tastings pending on Old Mission

As the year winds down, the hot-button issue of charging for wine tasting is again under the microscope on Old Mission Peninsula.

In November, Peninsula Township put on hold revisions to its zoning ordinance that, as drafted, would have allowed its seven wineries to charge for wine tasting. Other proposed changes would have loosened restrictions on sales of souvenir items and food, and also allowed for some wineries to host events like wedding receptions.

Ironically, the hold was requested by the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula association.

Why would the wineries want to hold up changes to zoning they've long chafed under, particularly the ban on paid tastings, which isn't imposed on their Leelanau brethren? In a Nov. 6 letter to the township, Old Mission winery owners essentially said they believe the township is treading on the state's turf.

"While we appreciate the efforts to move changes pertaining to the sale of wine by the glass, at this time we maintain that the authority for wineries to offer wine by the glass exists and is provided for by the MLCC (Michigan Liquor Control Commission) and MDA (Michigan Department of Agriculture) and therefore, further Township costs and efforts are unnecessary and not needed," the letter said.

Township planner Gordon Hayward said the ban on charging has existed since the township started regulating wineries years ago. He's asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether the current ordinance is enforceable.

"That's the issue," Hayward said. "If we aren't going to regulate, we want to be sure to notify our township residents why."

Lee Lutes is winemaker at Black Star Farms, the only winery with operations on both Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. He said that free tastings cost wineries between $50,000 and $100,000 annually.

At Black Star's Suttons Bay facility, charging for tasting winnowed out less serious patrons, he said. He foresees the same effect on Old Mission.

"If it's just a free drink, it's our belief if they're forced to pay a little bit, maybe they'll think about it twice," Lutes said.

However, not all wineries necessarily would charge even if they were able to.

"Hospitality is based more on treating someone as a guest than a customer," Chateau Chantal tasting room manager Bill Autenreith said.

Chateau Chantal pours less than the $50,000 in free wine that Lutes estimated, he said. But the winery has tracked an increase in the percentage of its tasted wines versus its sold wines. Last year it was 7.7 percent, up from 7.1 in 2006 and 6.22 in 2005. 2008 will surpass 2007. That's frustrating to him.

"We're sitting in the office, looking out the front door, and there goes a group with nothing in their hands," he said. "Therefore the charge makes sense."

As far as other aspects of the zoning ordinance, including souvenir items and hosting events, Hayward said the township wants to insure that wineries, which are zoned as agricultural businesses, remain so.

"What's reasonable to have in the ag zone? That's what we're trying to struggle with, to maintain the parity of that ag zone and not have it morph into a commercial zone," he said.

Hayward added that the township is very interested in working with the wineries on the ordinance.

"We certainly want to support the wineries," he said.

The Old Mission wine industry has experienced a recent growth spurt, almost doubling since 2005, when Brys Estate opened its tasting room. Black Star's Old Mission facility opened in 2007 and Two Lads earlier this year. Now totaling seven, the wineries are significant taxpayers and employers in PeninsulaTownship, Lutes said.

"To further stifle business here is counterproductive to those positive attributes," he said.

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at www.michgrapevine.com. Send news and ideas to her at cari@michgrapevine.com.

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