Wine, liquor bills to find new life with legislature

FAIRMONT – Lawmakers plan to revisit a change in state laws over alcohol sales that impact wineries and restaurants in the next session of the West Virginia Legislature.

The law prohibits bottle liquor sales on Sundays and beer and wine cannot be sold until 1 p.m. Businesses which rely on tourism say those limits damage business and are an unnecessary burden.

Mickey Heston, co-owner of Heston Farm Winery and Distillery in Fairmont, spoke to a delegation of West Virginia legislators Aug. 26 during a tour of the restaurant, tasting room and distillery.

Heston said the winery is a huge draw for tourism, but is hobbled by the outdated laws.

“Most of our interstate traffic comes in Sunday morning,” he said. “I’m usually here trying to explain to people why I can’t sell them anything.”

Del. Tim Manchin, D-Marion, co-chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, said the House attempted to pass bills last session which would allow businesses more leeway in Sunday alcohol sales, but the legislation died in the Senate.

“The wine bill would have allowed them to begin selling drinks at 10:30-11 a.m. That would have been big for tourism,” Manchin said. “The other bill would have allowed distilleries to sell their product by the bottle, which also would have helped business.”

Heston already follows stringent state and federal regulations in his distillery and winery, as well as pays bonding and license fees. The farm employs 40 to 45 people, full and part-time, depending on the season and demand.

Heston said he keeps the winery going by diversifying his business, offering a variety of products and services including a restaurant, catered events and other products in the gift shop.

“I’m doing a lot of different things, and that helps,” he said.

Heston said he also doesn’t pay the huge cost to distribute his products to other parts of the state.

“Most of our sales are here,” he said. “I really can’t afford to distribute much.”

Since the winery sells most of its products at its Fairmont location, and since the majority of traffic comes through on a Sunday when the business is prohibited from selling, the farm loses sales on its biggest tourism day, Heston said.

A legislator pointed out state law allows for Saturday alcohol sales to continue until 3 a.m. Sunday.

“We’re not a bar,” Heston said. “I’ve been in bed for a long time by 3 a.m.”

Heston said he believes Sunday alcohol restrictions make it difficult for distilleries such as his to make a profit, and a change in the law could create more business for everyone.

“If it was a little more attractive, we could probably have more distilleries,” he said.

Manchin said the tour was hopefully eye-opening for members of the committee.

“It’s always more meaningful when you see how your laws actually affect people,” he said.

Manchin said often defeated bills or those that didn’t make it to a vote begin again in the Judiciary Committee, and he fully expects both bills will be brought before the Legislature again.

“We’ll work to pass them this time,” he said. “It just makes sense.”