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Loni Hancock gets in the spirits

Submitted by on 1, April 12, 2010 – 5:00 amNo Comment

Jörg Rupf has a problem: The craft vodkas and whiskeys he creates at St. George Spirits out at Alameda Point must travel 100 miles before they can be sold at the store that sits 10 feet from his warehouse. The aged liquor laws that require those long, strange trips not only make it tough for St. George’s to turn a profit, Rupf believes, but they are also stunting the growth of what could be a burgeoning craft distilling industry.

But Rupf’s hoping that a bill recently introduced by State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, could change that. The bill, SB 1068, would allow St. George and a handful of other craft distillers to sell their wares directly on their premises.

“We see this bill as very important for the development of the small artisan distilling movement,” Rupf said in an interview with The Island last week.

The bill will get its first hearing before a state Senate committee on April 13. St. George and City Councilman Frank Matarrese are on record supporting it; so far, no one has officially opposed the bill. The City Council voted Tuesday to support the bill.

State law allows brewers and winemakers like St. George’s neighbor, Rock Wall Wine Company, to sell their wares on-premises. But craft distillers like Rupf – distillers that make 50,000 gallons of spirits or less – are barred from selling everything but brandy products directly on site by laws that have been on the books since the end of Prohibition.

In order for the store at St. George’s to sell the distiller’s products – a store that is operated not by St. George but a company that leases space there – the distiller’s distributor must load it onto a truck and drive it to a warehouse in Morgan Hill, unload it, sell it to the store, load it back on the truck and bring it all the way back to Alameda Point.

The process makes it hard for St. George and other small distillers it to make money. Rupf said that he might charge his distributor $10 a bottle for his vodka – a bottle that ultimately gets sold to shoppers by someone else for $21 or $22 a bottle. Those economics have scared a lot of potential distillers from getting into the business, he said. Just 22 craft distillers exist in California.

“(The system) does nothing but make our product expensive and cut into our ability to make money off of it,” Rupf said.

Hancock is not entirely unfamiliar with the state’s aged liquor laws. Her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, put forward a bill when he was in the state Assembly nearly three decades ago that legalized brewpubs, a bill that has been credited with helping to establish the nation’s craft brewing movement.

“The level of quality of beer now is incomparably better than it was before,” Rupf said. “The same principle applies to craft distilling.”

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