Next Tuesday could bring one small sip for beer drinkers and one giant leap for Memphis beer and wine laws, as the Memphis City Council votes on an ordinance that would make beer tastings in grocery stores possible.
But getting the ordinance to a vote hasn't been a seamless process.
When the ordinance was proposed, wholesale distributors came forward with concerns about the legislation's wording — or, more precisely, the lack thereof. According to Rich Foge, president of the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, the ordinance lacked clear rules and regulations about which licensed stores could hold beer tastings, when and how often tastings could be held, and what size samples could be distributed.
At its first reading, the ordinance simply proposed to amend city law to "allow off-premise license holders to conduct beer tastings for sales, promotional, and educational purposes."
"We just thought that was too general, that there needed to be more specifics if you were going to allow that practice to go on," Foge said. "The way it's drafted, you could literally give out cans of beer. There's no restriction on size of samples in the original draft. But we do think something like this [ordinance] could be accomplished as long as it's regulated properly."
The ordinance's sponsor, city councilman Shea Flinn, agrees that checks and balances must be added to the ordinance. After conversations with local wholesalers and manufacturers, he is tweaking the final version of the amendment to be more specific about which types of off-premise license holders can conduct beer tastings.
"The ordinance would allow for grocery stores to have limited beer tastings," Flinn said. "What we're trying not to do is turn a neighborhood convenience store into a bar where they can have on-premise, everyday consumption. It has to be for special promotional items or promotional events and a limited amount can be served."
Flinn said he sponsored the beer-tasting ordinance at the request of a constituent, Memphian Chris Albonetti, who found himself questioning local beer and wine laws after a recent visit to Whole Foods.
"There was a guy there from Yazoo Brewing, a little microbrewery out of Nashville," Albonetti said. "He had a little stand set up. I was talking to him, and I was like, 'Well, can I try it?' He told me, 'No, I'm just here to get the word out. It's much more difficult here than in Nashville or Chattanooga to get the permit required to allow customers to taste on site.'"
That did not sit well with Albonetti.
"When you're told someone here can't do something but they can do it in Nashville or Chattanooga, it kind of hits you," he says. "I contacted Shea because I know he was one of those, years ago, who introduced the 'wine in grocery stores bill.' His staffer Maria Fuhrmann jumped on it, talked to the people at the state, called all around, and found out that Nashville handles their off-premise license differently."
Flinn is now working on an ordinance that would address wholesalers' concerns and still give Memphis the opportunity for beer tastings in grocery stores.
"The vote has been delayed a few times, because we've gotten some input from the beer distributors," Flinn said. "But they've had some positive comments to help shape the legislation and get everyone's intent there. We're just working through that. We're taking notes from interested parties and crafting the best legislation we can."