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On the lighter side, regulating the hard stuff

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Many of the bills we are watching this session are fraught with life-changing potential, directly affecting individuals' rights and opportunities. Then there are some that, truthfully, fall under the umbrella of the ubiquitous Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. That doesn't make us any less interested, though.

One such bill is House Bill 842, "Study of Spiritous Liquor Sales-Distillery." It would allow distilleries in North Carolina to sell their products on site. So if, for example, you took one of the popular tours at TOPO Distillery in Chapel Hill (and if you haven't yet, you should) you could purchase a bottle of TOPO's vodka to take home.

For a couple of years, TOPO's Scott Maitland has been advocating for the state's distillers, touting the bill's benefits, which include increased tax revenue for the state and an expanding market for North Carolina farmers.

The task fell to him partially by default. When the bill was proposed, supporters weren't organized, Maitland said, and the measure was in danger of stalling. No one had stepped up to lobby, and Maitland decided, "I'm going to do this."

With sponsorship from state Reps. John Bell, Tim Moffitt, Brian Brown and George Graham (along with additional co-sponsors), HB842 passed the House 111-4 last May. It was then referred to the Senate for study. The hope for this session is that the Senate will pass a version and the two chambers will reconcile any differences. The full Legislature could approve the bill and send it to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk for his signature.

As the House vote indicates, there is broad support for the bill from agricultural and tourism interests. Beer and wine distributors initially were opposed but then decided not to fight it.

The resistance comes primarily from local ABC boards, which, in part, fear that allowing distilleries to sell their product onsite is the first step to privatization. The ABC also is concerned that sales at state stores would suffer.

Maitland counters that in some states such as Oregon, which allow distilleries to sell onsite, sales increase across the board. While people may buy their first bottle at a distillery, subsequently they purchase more at an ABC store.

Oregon is discussing privatization now, but Maitland said that is because neighboring states have already gone that route. And Rim Vilgalys of Durham's Brothers Vilgalys points out that distillers might prefer ABC outlets because there's less time spent haggling over price, shelf space and negotiating multiple deals with private liquor stores.

The distillers have an actual lobbyist now, Patrick Ballantine, former gubernatorial candidate, but Maitland is no less enthusiastic in talking about the bill's potential.

"Right now, North Carolina beer is world class but not all local ingredients [because so few hop types can grow here]," Maitland said. "Wine has local ingredients but doesn't have the world class reputation. Distillers can be both and truly support North Carolina agriculture.

"The state is missing out," he said. "We are the combination of beer and wine [industries]. They could market us and we could rival Kentucky."

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