California should let distillers ship directly to consumers

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California distilleries such as RE: Find in Paso Robles have been allowed to ship directly to customers during the pandemic.  Distillers hope the change will become permanent.

California distilleries such as RE: Find in Paso Robles have been allowed to ship directly to customers during the pandemic. Distillers hope the change will become permanent.

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Wineries have been allowed to ship directly to their customers for years, but due to some strange and outdated legislation, this option was not available to distilleries.

That double standard changed when COVID hit, and state and local governments relaxed regulations to help food and drink establishments survive.

California temporarily allowed distilleries to ship gin, vodka, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages directly to their customers. They are covered by the same restrictions that apply to the wine industry – including the requirement that an adult be present to receive the shipment.

The rule relaxation was due to expire Jan. 1 — setting off alarms for Californian drippers — but at the last minute it was extended through March 31. Among those who signed the letter of support for the extension.

However, distillers are looking for a permanent solution; Anything less than that will hurt the thriving handicraft distillery industry on the Central Coast.

“For smaller startups like myself, the direct-to-consumer part is important. (It) gives us the ability to build a following,” said Alex Velikana, co-owner of Re: Find Distillery in Paso Robles.

Without the ability to ship to consumers, distillers are limited to selling through distributors and customers visiting their tasting rooms. However, there is a limit to how much each customer can buy in the distillery’s tasting rooms – three 750ml bottles.

“…if you’re buying spirits for a wedding, you’ll need to visit the distillery a few times in order to buy enough for your celebration,” the Re:Find website notes.

Not only that, the indirect business is not what it used to be due to the pandemic. Early on, the tasting rooms closed completely and then reopened with capacity restrictions.

The same problem has also hampered the tasting rooms that have affected many businesses – a shortage of workers.

Villanueva says his room business has fallen 20% since his pre-pandemic days, and he’s been relying on direct-to-consumer shipments to help make up the difference.

Like others in his industry, he’s pushing to pass Senate Bill 620, a bill that would allow spirits to be shipped directly to customers on a permanent basis. As currently written, it will apply to licensed distilleries in California, as well as to licensed importers and out-of-state distilleries with direct shippers licenses.

Leveling the playing field is fair.

While the spirits industry is a small industry in California, it is growing rapidly.

There are about a dozen craft distilleries in San Luis Obispo County, the majority in Paso Robles, and more than 150 throughout the state. But these companies cannot succeed unless they have a practical way of marketing to their customers.

Yes, there are concerns about alcohol falling into the hands of minor drinkers, but if that’s not an issue with wine shipments, why is it any different for high-end craft spirits?

Let’s be honest, high school kids looking to grab some liquor for a party won’t do so by buying $48 bottles of cucumber-flavored vodka.

If alcohol shipments to minors become an issue, it’s time to reconsider regulations for all types.

But don’t penalize distillers by continuing to enforce legislation dating back to the 1930s.

Business models have changed dramatically since then; Today’s consumers are used to being able to have anything they want – from cat food to weed – delivered straight to their door.

We strongly urge the California Legislature to grant distillers the same opportunities as winemakers by passing SB 620.

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