Initiative 1183, proposing to privatize the state liquor sales system, has created more questions than answers, according to local producers, retailers and consumers. The issue has created consternation, concern and debate. However, most professionals in the liquor business agree that the state should be out of the booze sales business and focus strictly on regulation.
“We should be out of the liquor business,” said Larry Springer, proprietor of the Kirkland wine shop and a state legislator representing Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville, Bothell and Duvall. “We should have been out of it a long time ago. It’s not part of our core mission as a state.”
That’s about the only issue most interested parties can agree on. The issue is so complex it has left many voters undecided ahead of Tuesday's election. Many, including the Washington Wine Institute, the state wine industry’s lobbying group, have remained neutral on the matter. Opponents and proponents of I-1183 differ vastly on how to go about privatizing state liquor sales.
Proponents of I-1183 say moving liquor sales to the private sector will create competition, and consumers will benefit from more selection and competitive prices. I-1183 also will raise additional revenue for the state and local municipalities. Furthermore, it calls for stricter enforcement of liquor laws.
Many of the opponents object that, if passed, Initiative 1183 would strictly benefit large grocery stores and big-box retailers. Opponents also fear that increased availability will reduce public safety.
Detractors say the way the initiative is written will benefit large retailers such as Issaquah-based .
“That's an enormous amount,” said Jay Soloff, co-owner and executive vice president at Woodinville-based . “It reeks to me of unfairness.”
I-1183 requires that stores be at least 10,000 square feet in order to sell hard liquor. Opponents fear that stores such as Costco, Safeway, QFC and Metropolitan Market will be the only stores that can sell liquor, making it convenient for consumers to shop only at those stores for efficiency.
“It’s like saying if your car doesn't have six wheels you can't drive it on the freeway. It doesn’t make sense. I understand if you don't want mopeds on a freeway. That makes sense,” said Dan McCarthy, owner of the specialty wine retailer McCarthy & Schiering with stores on Queen Anne Hill and Ravenna.
Left at a competitive disadvantage, McCarthy thinks he may have to close his Ravenna store.
George Kingen, whose Pete’s Wine Shop in Bellevue is 7,300 square feet, says the special interests supporting Initiative 1183 are playing unfairly.
“When you say you have to be at least 10,000 square feet to get a liquor license, that is wrong,” Kingen said. “You are eliminating everyone who is not a supermarket. I’ve been in business for a long time. Now some guy says you can’t be in the hard liquor business. That is taking away my livelihood.”
Local boutique producers and retailers fear that if I-1183 passes, the market will be flooded with product from large producers instead of locally produced craft products. Small producers fear that large retailers will do business mostly with large producers, who can offer enough volume and discounts to make it worth their while.
“I just can’t get that many pallets of wine to a big retailer so they are not going to take my wine,” said Brennon Leighton, winemaker at Woodinville-based . “If you think the grocery stores are going to carry boutique wines instead of liquor, you are crazy.”
John Patterson of in Woodinville sold nearly 3,000 cases of wine to Costco during his first commercial release 11 years ago when they were based in Monroe. After moving the winery to Woodinville and opening a tasting room, Patterson noticed that many of the guests at his new tasting room did not buy wines there, preferring to buy them for less at Costco. Patterson also found that other retailers refused to sell his wines, not wanting to compete on pricing with Costco.
Patterson no longer wholesales to Costco. He now sells about 60 percent of his inventory directly to consumers out of his tasting room in Woodinville as well as a tasting room behind the Pike Place Market in Downtown Seattle. The balance of his inventory is distributed to retailers and restaurants, large and small.
“Costco is wonderful but it can be a brand killer,” Patterson said. “Other retailers will shun you.”
Alex Fryer, the spokesperson for the No on I-1183 campaign, says the issue belongs in the Legislature.
“If we do it, it has to be through the legislative side where every voice should be at the table,” Fryer said.
Springer, however, said it would be difficult to pass a liquor sales privatization bill at the state level because of the many voices at the table, some in direct conflict but no less legitimate than the other.
“Because the Legislature is inherently a political body, legislators are tugged and pulled by interest groups that are invested in preserving the system or dismantling the system,” Springer said. “They are both perfectly legitimate points of view.”
The powerful state employees labor union would lobby mightily against privatization of liquor sales because it would eliminate state jobs. Furthermore, the specter of compromising public safety by promoting liquor sales would deter many legislators from supporting privatization of liquor sales.
“There are social service workers that are worried about consumption, overdrinking, underage drinking. There are groups concerned that alcohol will be abused if sales are privatized,” Springer said. “That attitude still exists out there. My point of view is that I‘ve yet to see any statistic that bears that out.”
I-1183 calls for stricter enforcement of liquor laws, for example, doubling the fines to stores selling alcohol to minors.
The campaign for I-1183 insists a free market economy will create more options for consumers.
“(If Initiative 1183) passes, bureaucrats won’t set the price,” said Kathryn Stenger, director for the Yes on 1183 Coalition. “Consumers will select with their feet. Consumers will get to decide. We won’t have a prohibition era model that has a 52 percent markup on liquor.”
Fryer counters that Washington State’s Office of Financial Management expects margins as high as 72 percent versus the current markup of 52 percent.
Business owners are also consumers. In the end many want choice in what to drink.
“As a consumer I want access to specialty producers. This is not going to do it,” McCarthy said.
As election day approaches, many voters, including Springer, remain undecided on this complex issue.
“To me it’s going to come down to the last four seconds and when I am holding the pen over the bubble (on the ballot) and fill that bubble,” Springer said.
Wine Pick of the Week: 07 Smasne Carmenere, Horse Heaven Hills
Carmenere is an often misunderstood and, perhaps, underappreciated varietal. It’s often maligned for its green bell pepper flavors common in Chilean Carmenere. Smasne’s version, however, eschews any of the underripe green qualities to produce a clean, spicy, juicy Carmenere with lithe acidity and length with fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills.
Carmenere originated in France’s Bordeaux region but is barely grown today and is generally used as a blending varietal. Chile is now the largest producer of Carmenere. Washington producers have made Carmenere with mixed results.
Winemaker Robert Smasne has crafted a balanced and complex Carmenere. White and black peppercorn, baking spices, smoke and a touch of fresh tilled earth are the foreplay to the juicy black cherry, bing cherry, blackberry flavors on the round mid-palate. Fine-grained tannins and spicy oak lead to an acid-driven finish begging for the next sip.
Pair this wine with the wild mushroom tart at on Mercer Island. The pairing is a classic example of how a dish can pair with a wine by both complementing and contrasting flavor profiles. The shitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms in the tart complement earthy notes of the wine. The acidity in the wine cuts through the creamy sauce and the Beecher’s Flagship Cheese (white cheddar) crust.
The wine is available at the Smasne Cellars tasting room in Woodinville’s Warehouse District, 19495 144th Ave. N.E., Suite B240, open Fridays from 2-7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.