The growing throngs of Wisconsin wineries are pressing state lawmakers to grant them extended operating hours, but tavern owners in the state hope to put a cork on those efforts.
Current regulations that force many wineries to shut their doors at 9 p.m. limits the wineries’ ability to hold events such as weddings, wedding receptions and business meetings on their grounds, according to Alwyn Fitzgerald, president of the Wisconsin Winery Association. Fitzgerald and other winery owners would like to see their businesses allowed to stay open until midnight for special events.
“We’re hopeful that this year it will pass,” he told Watchdog.org, noting that the winery association has hired a lobbyist this year and is trying to regroup after the defeat of similar legislation last year.
But the Wisconsin wineries’ increasing numbers and clout – they’ve grown from about 13 in the year 2000 to about 130 in 2016 – worry the Tavern League of Wisconsin. Executive Director Pete Madland said giving the expanded hours to wineries, along with other potential changes to state law, could give the wineries a competitive edge over taverns.
“Our biggest argument is that we are not going to change the rules,” Madland said. “The rules have been in place for many years.”
The current three-tiered regulatory system puts alcohol producers, alcohol distributors and alcohol retailers in separate categories to avoid business entities from getting a monopoly in the industry. Wineries are allowed to produce and sell their wines under the current permitting system, but some fear that the playing field could become uneven as some wineries have sought beer and liquor licenses and hold an array of entertainment events.
“Pretty soon they’ll want to be open for Packers and Badgers games,” Madland said.
A big part of some taverns’ business involves serving as host to weddings and anniversaries, so granting too many concessions to wineries could hurt the bottom line for taverns, he said.
“It’s been humongous,” Madland said of the growth in the number of wineries in the state in recent years. “These wineries are not mom-and-pop establishments” that need additional financial incentives from the state, he said.
But others see the current limitations on winery hours as a free market issue. Rep Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) sees the 9 p.m. cutoff time for wineries as an unfair limitation on a business.
“Demand for the unique experience a winery can offer is rising rapidly,” Zimmerman said in an email to Watchdog.org. “Customer experience is harmed by limited hours because they cannot hold events like weddings.”
Zimmerman, whose family owns the Belle Vinez Winery in River Falls, said energy and support for an extension of the hours are building, and he expects the legislature to take some action on it this year.
The lawmaker also doesn’t see the issue as one that truly pits wineries against taverns. Out-of-state guests at winery special events such as weddings would be likely to visit a local tavern after the event is over, Zimmerman said, making winery events something taverns could benefit from.
“They are different businesses and offer different customer experiences,” he said.
Zimmerman emphasizes the overall economic value of wineries to the state as well. A 2015 Michigan State University study that focused on Wisconsin found that revenues from wineries in the state have surpassed $150 million, he said.
“Wineries … tie historical Wisconsin roots in agriculture with an emerging new category of tourism,” Zimmerman said.
Fitzgerald, who operates the Fisher King Winery in Verona, echoed some of those sentiments. About 40 percent of the 40,000 people who visited his winery in 2016, when it was located in Mount Horeb, came to the region simply because the winery was there, he said.
“When people spend $1 at a winery, $2.46 gets spent in the local economy,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s typical.”
The popularity of wineries can be seen in the desire of people to know where the food and beverages they consume come from, he said, and wineries grow their own grapes and manufacture their wines.
“That’s about as local as you can get,” Fitzgerald said.
And in the upper Midwest, new types of cold-hardy hybrid grapes are continuing to be developed, giving the Wisconsin wineries a greater range of grape varieties to grow, he said.
Fitzgerald also denied that winery owners are trying to move in on activities that are traditionally associated with taverns.
“We don’t want to be kicking the drunks out at 2 a.m.,” he said.
Zimmerman described the current liquor rules and regulations in Wisconsin as an archaic mishmash, some of which date back to the Prohibition Era.
“The three-tiered system is not sacrosanct,” he said.