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Beverage-tasting bill to be held for amendments after industry outcry

Bill would raise the age of tasting-room servers at wineries, breweries and distilleries to 21 and limit tax-exempt tastings.

Guests taste wine at a tasting room in

Guests taste wine at a tasting room in Mattituck in 2015. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

A state assemblywoman who sponsored a bill that would have raised the age of tasting-room servers at wineries, breweries and distilleries to 21 and limited tax-exempt tastings has put the bill on hold until it can be modified.

A spokesman for Assemb. Donna A. Lupardo (D-Endwell) confirmed last week that “we are going to be holding the bill until the end of the year” following criticism from industry groups, including Long Island wineries, about language in the bill. The bill had already passed the State Legislature and awaits Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature. 

Language in the bill requiring that servers be 21 “will be scrapped,” said Lupardo’s spokesman, Chris Whalen, in favor of an 18-year age requirement, which is the state standard at restaurants.

The bill also will clarify language that appeared to limit the number of tastings customers can consume in wineries, breweries, distilleries and cider shops across the state. The intention of the bill, which was written with support from upstate wine, distillery and brewery groups, Whalen said, was to define how many tastings would be tax-exempt under state tax law. For wineries, the bill set the limit at six 3-ounce tastings.

What was unclear is whether customers could have more than six tastings in total at each daily visit. Whalen said that language will be clarified to say that only the tax exemption for customers would end after six wine tastings. The Long Island Wine Council opposes limits on the tax exemption, noting that many local wineries offer more wines than the six covered under the bill. 

For beer tastings, customers would be allowed five samples of beer of up to 5 ounces before paying tax on the tastings. For cider, the tax-free limit would be five samples of 5 fluid ounces, while liquor would have a limit of three samples of no more than one-quarter of a fluid ounce.

Whalen said that after the bill goes to Cuomo for action by the end of the year, the assemblywoman expects that the governor will call for language changes through amendments early next year.

"We have been assured that the bill will not be sent to the governor for consideration until the end of the year, when we will request a chapter amendment to address the 21-year-old age limit for servers and any other unintended consequences," Lupardo said in a statement, with co-sponsor State Sen. Patrick Gallivan (R-Elma). 

“We anticipate that he [Cuomo] will sign it with the caveat" the language will be amended, Whalen said. “That gives us time to approve those chapter amendments.”

A spokesman for Cuomo didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who voted for the bill, said the measure was "supposed to provide a tax exemption to the industry, which everyone supports. This is how it was presented to legislators." But, he noted, "the language is flawed … it will be fixed to address the concerns of local wineries." 

Wineries under current law don’t charge tax for tastings, Whalen said.

Before the changes were offered, local winery interests strongly opposed the bill.  

“Unfortunately, we heard about this legislation only after it had passed both the Senate and the Assembly this past session,” said Steve Bate, acting director of the Long Island Wine Council, an industry group.

Bate said he wasn't aware "of anyone from the industry who was consulted on this particular bill. Hopefully, that will happen before the bill goes to the governor," because Bate  still has issues with the six-taste limit. 

“Although it might appear to be largely sufficient to limit a tax-exempt tasting to a total of 18 ounces, it is too restrictive for many small producers to restrict the number of samples to six per day because they produce more than six wines,” he said. “We are hoping this provision can be modified to make it more flexible so that New York wineries can better market their full range of products.”

Bate said raising the age limit on servers would have affected small, family-run wineries where the flexibility to have servers as young as 18 was “especially useful.”  

“Removing the possibility could create a significant hardship for some wineries in regions with tight labor markets,” Bate said.

Ron Goerler, owner of Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport, agreed.

If it's not changed, “it’s going to affect a lot of people across the state who have college jobs,” he said, noting the East End’s particular labor issue. “We have a shortage of help out here.”

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