Editorial: Pour a shot of sanity

Let’s face it, rules governing the sale and disbursement of alcohol in this country are not only outdated and inconsistent from state to state, in many cases they’re downright silly.

And New York State is no exception.

For example, New York’s Alcoholic Beverages Control, or ABC, laws currently require that the entrance to an establishment that sells alcohol be level with the street, a throwback to the original intent of preventing the proliferation of hidden and unlicensed speakeasy-type bars after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition.

The rules were designed to keep in check people who for over a decade were considered criminals. And the State Liquor Authority is planning to revamp them, SLA officials told a room full of North Fork vintners last Thursday.

This is long overdue. The state’s arbitrary and at times arcane rules have been creating confusion and tension within our tourism industry since the first wineries began to appear in Southold and Riverhead some 30 years ago. Sprinkle in the often contradictory rules and regulations of the Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the situation gets even more muddy — not only for businesspeople, but for their neighbors. And elected leaders trying to referee disputes.

Riverhead Town has already taken the owners of a Baiting Hollow winery to state Supreme Court over activities the town has deemed inappropriate. So far, the courts have sided with the business owners, citing ag and markets laws. In Southold Town, bar and restaurant owners have become increasingly critical of some wineries for selling restaurant-style dishes, or for looking the other way when customers carry beer or liquor to musical and other outdoor events.

But local hotels, wineries, restaurants, supermarkets and liquor stores should be complementing one another, not serving as potentially destructive rivals. Clear and equitable laws and codes are the only way to achieve harmony here.

With the winemaking industry also growing rapidly in the Finger Lakes region and elsewhere upstate, its clear that New York lawmakers and other officials face a critical mass of problems, and must act accordingly.

As SLA officials warned last week, state officials are going to be lobbied hard by competing business interests, some richer or better organized than others. It’s important they wade through the spin and come up with the fairest way to satisfy all industries involved statewide, lest any gets unduly hurt.

Those selling alcohol here are no longer criminals; they’re our friends and neighbors. If a vineyard owner wants to build a tasting room on the second floor of a barn because his wife’s art studio is downstairs — a real request recently brought before the SLA, as we report in our story — he should be allowed to do so. As of now, he can’t because the alcohol sales would not be conducted at “street level,” as required.
That’s just one example of dozens, even hundreds, of restrictive, nonsensical laws that are still on the books.