Ohio wineries ‘just say no’ to free-samples legislation

Ohio wineries have opted out of legislation that will allow restaurants and breweries to give away free samples of beer, wine and spirits to their customers.

The legislation will give breweries, restaurants and distilleries the ability to offer paying customers no more than four free samples — up to two ounces of beer, two ounces of wine, or one-fourth of an ounce of liquor — in a 24-hour period. Current Ohio law prohibits those businesses from giving away beer or alcohol. The legislation, House Bill 444, was approved by the Ohio General Assembly last week and awaiting Gov. John Kasich’s signature.

The approved legislation puts Ohio in line with the 37 other states that have some type of free sampling available, said Natalie Walston, communications director for the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA). The proposal “takes away some red tape when offering customers samples of alcohol,” Walston said. Nothing in the legislation requires restaurants and breweries to offer free samples, but simply allows them to do so if they choose.

RELATED: New Ohio law allows for free alcohol tastings at retailers (May 2014)

Joe Rosato, director of government affairs for the Ohio Restaurant Association, testified in favor of the legislation before an Ohio General Assembly committee, calling it “common sense reform” and predicting it would bring economic benefits.

“With the growing market of craft alcohol products, the customer can become overwhelmed with all of the choices on the market,” Rosato said. “When executed responsibly, effective marketing tools like tastings contribute to increased tax revenues and the overall health of Ohio’s economy.”

Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, said the legislation “codifies what happens in bars, restaurants and taprooms around the state: people often ask for a small sample of something before committing to a whole glass, and most venues offer that. This makes the common practice of sampling legal, and we like to help our members operate within the law.”

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Ohio wineries, however, are not included in the new free-samples legislation — and that was at their request.

“Our concern was over the expense of it,” Lee Klingshirn, co-owner of Klingshirn Winery in Avon Lake and a legislative liaison for the Ohio Wine Producers Association, told this news outlet in a phone interview.

Nearly all Ohio wineries already sell small-sized tasting samples of their wines in their tasting rooms, so giving away free two-ounce samples didn’t make sense to winery owners.

“We’d be giving away bottles of wine,” Klingshirn said. “That adds up over time.”

Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, said Ohio wineries “are in the tourism business, not the food and beverage business.” But she supported the legislation — with the wineries exclusion.

“We’re elated for our friends in the craft brewery business,” Winchell said.

Mark Zdobinski, co-founder of the Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery in Preble County west of Dayton, said some high-volume wineries had calculated they would lose several thousands of dollars if they gave away free samples under the legislation’s guidelines.

“Opting out was the right thing to do,” Zdobinski said. “The amount of money lost on the tastings would have to be returned by increasing bottle prices. It’s more fair for the customers to pay for the tastings separately, in order to keep the bottle prices reasonable.”

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