TRAVERSE CITY — Ben Crow is delighted about the new law that allows small winemakers to offer wine tastings and sell bottled wine at farmers markets throughout Michigan. But he’s disappointed by the reaction of many local farmers markets, which are coming to a close for the season without taking advantage of the opportunity.
“I would love to be at the farmers markets except I’ve got a 'no' from every single farmers market in Traverse City,” said Crow, owner of Good Neighbor Organic Vineyard and Winery in Northport. “The market at the Commons pretty much said there’s already Black Star Farms and Left Foot Charley at the Commons so they don't want any more. The Downtown Traverse City market doesn't want to do it this year. The ones in Leelanau are taking it to their board for next year.”
Under the new bill effective Aug. 31, wineries that produce fewer than 5,000 gallons (or 2,000 cases) of wine a year can buy permits to sell wine and serve up to three two-ounce tastings per customer at farmers markets around the state. Wineries first have to get approval from farmers market management and local police.
The idea behind the law is both to expand the appeal of farmers markets and to allow small winemakers, who often have a difficult time getting conventional retail shelf space because they don't produce enough for wholesalers to carry their products, to generate sales and build a market for their wines.
Currently, tastings at farmers markets only are allowed in a few states, including California, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, said about 100 wineries in the state are small enough to meet the law criteria. But so far she has not heard of any permits being issued by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to winemakers.
She said the bill was requested by the Michigan Farmers Market Association rather than winemakers and is getting mixed reaction across the wine industry — and not just from larger winemakers who think the law unfairly excludes them.
“There are some wineries that don’t want to have this provision for anyone. They want tasting rooms to be the only places to sample wine because it drives traffic to their wineries,” said Jones, adding that the Grape and Wine Industry Council supports the law because the agency is housed in the Department of Agriculture and wine is agriculture. “There are some very small ones that say they don’t have the staff to be able to do this.”
Staffing is just one problem Verterra Winery co-owner Paul Hamelin foresees with establishing a presence at local farmers markets.
"There's a lot of elements that come into it, even who wants to taste wine from 8 to 10 in the morning," said Hamelin, whose tasting room is located between Traverse City and Suttons Bay. "Even though these farm markets are once or twice a week, you now have staff that have to bring in the wine and you're not certain of a reasonable return or that people are coming to the markets with the interest in or thought processes to pick up wine. They're there to get produce.
"But if it's indoors in the winter and you don't have your tasting room open, and it's not just a morning event, that's a different thing."
But Crow says area farmers markets for dragging their feet. As the only organic winemaker in the region, he said he’d bring his wines to a Traverse City farmers market “tomorrow” if he got permission.
"I think I would have a lot more people that I don’t get on my wine trail,” he said. “I’m one of the younger winery owners and I’m way in Northport. I’m at the end of a dusty dirt road and I close for the season. Being at the Commons in winter would increase my sales."
Only the two winemakers on site at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons will be allowed to participate in the The Village Farmers Market, which moves indoors for the winter on Nov. 2, said Market Manager Tricia Phelps.
"We have a sizable market in the winter and we want it to be about the food and produce," Phelps said, adding that since Black Star Farms and Left Foot Charley are already on site, they may not sell at the market. "We want to not turn it into a place people come just to taste wine, though we want to highlight the great wines that are here."
The Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market is open until late October but will not allow wine this year, confirmed Nick Viox, special projects coordinator for the Downtown Development Authority, which operates the farmers market.
“We will be reviewing it over the winter for next year. So it’s not completely out, but it won’t be this year,” he said.
By that time, the law may have changed. Jones said a new bill has been introduced that would change the cap for eligible winemakers to 25,000 gallons and would allow only wineries within 60 miles of a farmers market to participate.
“Probably nothing will happen on it until next year, but it has been discussed,” she said.