[caption id="attachment_95176" align="aligncenter" width="500"] California certified farmers' markets, like this one in Windsor, can now add a single wine tasting event a week. Windsor market manager Tina Castelli and her board are considering the new law but have not made a decision as yet as to whether to allow wine tasting on a recurring basis or only at special events. (credit: Gary Quackenbush)[/caption]

SACRAMENTO -- Under provisions of a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, producers of wine and hard cider can get state permits to offer tastes as well as sell their products at certified farmers' markets, subject to certain conditions.

That permit applies to the 700--800 certified markets in California, including about four dozen in the North Bay.

With Assembly Bill 2488, signed Tuesday, licensed vintners and cidermakers can immediately apply to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) for a permit to conduct tastings at venues certified by the county agricultural commissioner's office.

Under provisions of existing law, passed in 2000, the licensee may only sell wine or hard cider made entirely from crops grown and bottled by the producer at certified farmers' markets. Holders of a bottle-sales permit under the 2000 law won't have to get a new permit.

This new law also allows the license holder to conduct an "instructional tasting event" at certified farmers' markets under a number of restrictions.

Permits cost $50 for each market location. Permits will be issued for up to 12 months and will not be valid for more than one day a week at any single specified certified farmers' market.

Bill author Assemblymember Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, representing Marin and Sonoma counties, urged that the law be enacted quickly to help farmers' market sales during the current season. The bill passed the legislature unanimously in late June.

"It's a win-win-win for wineries, consumers and farmers' markets," said Mike Falasco, legislative representative for the Wine Institute. "With over 3,800 wineries in the state, including 150 to 200 major producers, this is another market opportunity for large winemakers to test market a new blend or to reintroduce a wine from existing libraries."

This law is also good news for the 3,500 to 3,600 small- and medium-sized winemakers who may not have shelf space at retail stores or list their wines on restaurant menus and are looking for another marketing channel.

"Operators of farmers' markets may wish to take advantage of this new ruling," Mr. Falasco said. "But it remains to be seen if markets operating in the morning will attract wine tasting consumers or if it will be a better fit for afternoon or evening markets."

He said one of the Wine Institute's members last fall asked how he could give people a taste of his wine at farmers' markets as part of a new marketing strategy.

The institute drafted a proposed bill in collaboration with Family Winemakers of California and took it to its policy committee and board of directors for review and approval. 

"Our members thought it was a good idea, so we approached Assemblymember Levine and asked him to sponsor it," Mr. Falasco said. "It turned into a windfall, legislators in both houses approved the bill without exception."

Licensed winegrowers eligible for this permit cannot sell more than 5,000 gallons of wine annually at all certified farmers' markets where they have sales permits. However, licensees can hold multiple sales permits for different markets.

Yet, vintners and cidermakers also need to be certified by the local county commissioner to sell at certified markets.

Wine industry experts believe this will largely benefit small producers, since 5,000 gallons is roughly 2,000 cases, and -- on average -- many small wineries do not produce this amount annually.

"Family Winemakers of California co-sponsored AB 2488 along with the Wine Institute," said President Paul Kronenberg. "We are delighted that this law passed. Legislation passed in 2000 allowed bottle sales at farmers' markets, but it did not contain the tasting provision. For this new bill, we also received input from managers of farmers' markets.  People like to taste wine before they buy, so this law enables family winemakers to get closer to consumers interested in locally grown produce."

Stephen Herringer, who operates Herringer Family Estates in the Sacramento River Delta said he has been trying to sell bottles of wine at eight farmers' markets in the Sacramento area for six years, but sales have been slim without the ability for shoppers to taste what they're buying.

The law gives the management of each certified farmers' market the option to allow, or not allow, wine tasting at its local events.

"We have not discussed this new law at our board meeting," said Tina Castelli, market manager for the Windsor Certified Farmers' Market. "Right now we have no space for other vendors. We are a family-oriented community and I don't think we will want to allow wine tasting every week or on a regular basis, but only for special occasions."

The licensee, a member of the licensee's family, or an employee of the licensee may conduct an instructional tasting.

At all times the instructional tasting area has to be cordoned off from the rest of the market with some form of temporary or permanent barrier such as a wall, rope, cable, cord or fence. Only one tasting can be held at each market on a given day.

The ABC will notify local government and the law enforcement agency about each permit and its applicable market location.

Additional requirements prohibit consumers from leaving the tasting area with an open container of wine. The licensee cannot pour more than three ounces of wine per person, per day.

The participating winegrower must also make an annual report of wine sales at certified farmers' markets to the ABC.  This report may be included in the annual production report to the Alcohol Beverage Control Department.

No premiums, gifts, free goods or other things of value can be given away by the licensee in connection with an instructional tasting event, except as otherwise provided by ABC rules.

"This new wine tasting privilege is another way winegrowers can reach out to consumers," Mr. Falasco said. "After all, this is what defines a certified farmers' market as a place where people sell what they grow."