Wine industry to uncork plenty of news in 2009

It's that time of year again. The People, Products and Properties to Watch in this issue already has a good representation from the wine industry. So let's take a look at some specific stories likely to play out in '09:

Tasting fees/sales by the glass:

On behalf of its seven members, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP) organization is pursuing the ability to charge for a glass of wine, according to WOMP president Eddie O'Keefe. Clarifying what I wrote last month: By-the-glass sales are separate from fees for tasting or sampling, which are charged by some wineries on the neighboring Leelanau Peninsula and which some Old Mission wineries would also like to institute. Local zoning currently bans Old Mission wineries from charging any fee for on-premise consumption. "Some wineries are very adamant to wanting to charge for sampling. That is not currently our (WOMP's) mission," said O'Keefe, president of Chateau Grand Traverse. "We are pursuing the ability to charge by the glass."

And on that front, WOMP says that the township has been treading on state turf all these years. They maintain that the state liquor control code gives them the prerogative to charge, and that the local zoning is not enforceable. Township planner Gordon Hayward, meanwhile, has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on ordinance enforceability. Until it arrives, the township, at WOMP's request, in November put on hold revisions to its ordinance that would have allowed wineries to charge for tasting. Look for this saga to resume in 2009.

Legal matters:

Mediation over a trademark dispute between Chateau Grand Traverse and Grand Traverse Distillery over use of the "Grand Traverse" term is scheduled to begin by March 31. The winery sued the distillery alleging trademark violations last year. The distillery subsequently asked that the winery's trademarks be dismissed. Meanwhile, a dispute over the term "Leelanau" enters its seventh year in 2009. Bel Lago and L. Mawby's Larry Mawby are seeking to strip away "Leelanau" from trademark protection by Leelanau Cellars, which has a trademark on the two words together.

Lansing watch:

On its marathon last December day in session, the Legislature approved a bill that would drastically restrict retailers from shipping alcohol into – and out of – Michigan. It was pushed by the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which wants to protect its profitable middleman role in between producers and consumers. Wineries, which have been able to ship in and out of Michigan since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, kept quiet on the case retailers brought seeking the same shipping rights, which then spawned the anti-retailer shipping bill. But it's probably not over yet for a couple reasons. First, the bill doesn't require retailers to obtain a shipping license or pay sales taxes, something wineries have to do. That could happen in the Legislature or through Liquor Control Commission rulemaking. Second, the state and the wholesalers are appealing the September decision that favored the retailers.

So, look for another round – pun intended – on this one, either in the Legislature, LCC, courts – or all three venues. Lawmakers also will likely hash out some details about tasting rooms for holders of a new small distiller license. State Sen. Jason Allen's bill on this died with the session.

Construction and expansion:

After spending months working to re-assemble the century-old barn trucked to the property in pieces last year, Forty-Five North changed course and is now working to build a new post and beam, rough-hewn Amish built kit barn as its tasting facility. Just down the road in Lake Leelanau, Circa Estate Winery opened its tasting room doors New Year's Day. Depending on what happens with the small distiller license, there could be some new places to taste spirits like Grand Traverse Distillery's True North vodka.

Stay tuned to this space for developments on all of the above and more.

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's 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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