Local wine makers concerned about I-1100

Published on Wed, Oct 6, 2010 by By Jerry Huls

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Ken Peck knows the highs and lows of small business. As the head winemaker of the artisan Dakota Creek Winery, he endeavors to find a niche in the highly competitive winemaking business. Peck sees stormclouds on the horizon though in the form of the upcoming November election where two initiatives on the ballot seek total or partial privatization of alcohol retail sales.

I-1100 and I-1105 have both fallen under the scrutiny of the Washington Association of Grape Growers, which has come out in opposition to the initiatives.

While Peck is less concerned about the well-being of his winery located at 3575 Haynie Road in Blaine, he said he is concerned for the health of the industry.

“Only 15 percent of Dakota Creek’s sales are based on distribution, so we expect little impact from the passage of the initiatives,” explained Peck in a phone interview, “but one reason that winemaking is such a vibrant industry in Washington is because it is easy to enter into. There is an environment where startups can compete right away. The initiatives provide additional barriers for new winemakers.”

Peck’s concerns center around big box store’s having a greater influence on whose wine is sold and who is left out. Small vineyards around the state are divided about the initiative.

David Traynor, head winemaker at Mount Baker Vineyards in Deming, for example is a supporter of the initiatives.
“In business, it’s survival of the fittest,” said Traynor of concerns about small vineyards like his. He points out that agents could be used to solicit for the smaller houses as is often done in California, where sales are already privatized. Peck counters that a hierarchy of small artisan wineries may already be in place.

“Some wineries that are well established and have been around for awhile have already developed a following,” Peck explained, “they don’t have to compete for shelf space.”

While there is generally strong support for one or both of the privatization initiatives, local governments are either split or mum about their support. In Bellingham, a public hearing was held about the initiatives where an effort led by Councilman Terry Bornemann was expected to successfully oppose the initiatives.

Ken Oplinger, chairman of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, who also serves on the Blaine Planning Commission, is an outspoken advocate of the initiatives, even writing the support statement for I-1105.

Oplinger noted that alcohol acquired from new locations would likely be transported back to Canada or to the purchaser’s home.

The initiatives would do nothing to increase drinking establishments. Border cities like Blaine, Lynden and Sumas stand to see increased commerce if new locations to purchase alcohol nearer to the border sprout up.

While the Blaine city council has not taken a position on the issue, mayor Bonnie Onyon doesn’t see the initiatives having a huge impact locally.

“I’m all for free enterprise and less government,” Onyon said, “(for the city of Blaine) it could be a wash or a plus. We’ll lose the money we get from the state, but we stand to get more local sales tax.”

While councilman Jason Overstreet would not speak on behalf of the city council, as a candidate for the state legislature, he says he supports I-1100 and opposes I-1105 noting that the latter doesn’t go as far to break the state’s monopoly on retail alcohol sales.

Though opponents of I-1100 and 1105 cite higher risks of alcohol related incidents and public safety concerns, proponents say those concerns are a smoke-screen for the fiscal worries.