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Taproom proposal, which could deal blow to Wisconsin craft breweries and wineries, still possible

Trevor Wirtanen, right, and Matt Wallace, owners of Oliphant Brewing in Somerset, chatted with a customer during a 2014 event in Somerset, Wis. File photo / Forum News Service

RIVER FALLS, Wis. — A proposal that critics say could spell doom for taprooms in Wisconsin breweries remains afloat, according to a Wisconsin State Assembly member.

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman refuted a Wednesday, July 12, media report that the proposal — which has not been made public — is effectively dead.

"It is my understanding from information shared with me last night that its inclusion in a 999 motion remains a very real possibility," the River Falls Republican said Wednesday of the proposal, which reportedly bans Wisconsin's alcohol producers from retailing their own products without a distributor.

Zimmerman's assertion follows a media report that quoted Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, saying the proposal will not be slipped into legislation by the powerful Joint Finance Committee, of which he is a member.

Zimmerman said he doesn't doubt Kooyenga's opposition to the bill, but fears others on the budget committee might feel differently.

The freshman lawmaker said he couldn't believe his ears when word first circulated about the proposal. And even though the document hasn't taken the form of drafted legislation, Zimmerman said he's warning others of its presence.

"It's a very real document," he said.

He and others in Madison are concerned the proposal could be slipped into the state's budget by the Joint Finance Committee as a controversial 999 motion that's been used in the past to include legislation that didn't face public debate at the Legislature.

As for the taproom proposal, Zimmerman said there's no debate in his mind about its possible repercussions.

"This motion is a direct assault on craft brewers, wineries" and other independent alcohol operations, he said.

Zimmerman makes no bones about the fact that he and his wife own a winery, but said he'd oppose the motion regardless.

According to multiple accounts of the proposal, it aims to ban alcohol producers from having retail operations such as taprooms and winery tasting rooms.

The document, Zimmerman explained, would create an "alcohol czar" apart from the state's revenue department. That new office would have the authority to enforce a rule requiring breweries and wineries to contract with distributors to distribute their own products.

"Multiple groups" are pushing the proposal, Zimmerman said, adding that the Wisconsin Tavern League "had a part in this."

He said the bill is being pushed by lobbying interests who "believe there is finite alcohol revenue to go around in Wisconsin." Zimmerman contends that microbreweries, wineries and distilleries are a regional draw that lead to customers spending dollars elsewhere in the Wisconsin communities they've come to visit.

"We're better than this," Zimmerman said. "We are simply better than these back-office special interests."

Russ Korpela, owner of Common Man Brewing in Ellsworth, was one of many craft beer retailers voicing opposition to the document. Though his business doesn't yet brew its own beer, he hopes to one day. And in the meantime, he relies heavily on craft beer — a product his customers demand.

"This is a continuing push by the major domestic brewers in their war on craft beer and they're taking a different way to go about it," Korpela said. "I hope a message has been strongly sent that they're not going to use the rule 999 to insert it into the final state budget."

The tune didn't change in Hudson, where Pitchfork Brewing co-owner Mike Fassino said the proposal could be a business killer.

He said about 80 percent of Pitchfork's business flows through its taproom.

"It would be crippling," Fassino said. "It would be virtually impossible, I think, to survive."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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