Wednesday, April 1, 2009

YAKIMA, WASH. (AP) - With more than 600 wineries across Washington state, a legislative proposal to sell state wines at the Capitol’s gift shop was intended as a toast to the booming industry.

But some brewers in the nation’s largest hop-growing region say their products should be included, too.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, would allow the Legislative Gift Center on the first floor of the Capitol building to add bottles of Washington wine to its ample product display, which includes locally produced candies, candles, gourmet foods and flowers.

Hasegawa, who isn’t a drinker himself, calls it one of those “good little bills” that gives well-earned attention to a wine industry that now ranks No. 2 in production of premium wines behind California.

“We put a lot of the state’s resources into this industry, and it’s an economic development success. We should be showing if off to the world,” he said.

Just 10 years ago, Washington’s wine industry was the darling of agriculture, a growing niche industry with a loyal fan base for its 160 wineries. Today, its industry is valued at $3 billion.

Hasegawa didn’t include brewers or distillers in his bill, though other versions have since been proposed. He’s still not sure they should be included.

“I’ve never heard of a global reputation for Washington beers or Washington craft distillers. Maybe there is one, but I haven’t been aware of it,” he said. “I know, as a state, we haven’t put the emphasis into building those industries like we have the wine industry.”

Brewers disagree.

“Since the Yakima Valley is the No. 1 producer of hops in the world, it would make sense that the state would want to showcase the hop producers. And what better way to do that than to showcase Washington beer?” said Heather McClung, owner of Schooner Exact Brewing in Seattle and president of the Washington Brewers Guild.

The United States produces about one-fourth of the world’s hops, a component in brewing beer. More than 70 percent of that supply is grown in central Washington’s Yakima Valley, which is dotted with apple and cherry orchards, vineyards and hop fields.

Under Hasegawa’s bill, the gift center could only sell wine for off-premises consumption. It would be required to consult with the Washington Wine Commission, the industry’s marketing group, on which wines to sell, taking into account award-winning wines. The shop would also have to pay the state’s $100 license fee.

California’s nonprofit Capitol Books and Gifts has never sold wine and offers few food products, limiting itself to mostly souvenirs. Oregon offered its own wines in its small Capitol Gift shop, but ended the practice this year.

The more than $400 annual license to sell alcohol proved too expensive during a budget crunch, said store manager Linda Gardner.

“There’s a lot of tourists that come through, so it was nice to have for them to take home,” Gardner said. “But it was more of a service. Financially, it was not a real profit.”

But with wine so handy, did lobbyists line up in hopes of influencing lawmakers?

“Unfortunately not. Or fortunately. I’m not sure which way to look at that,” Gardner said, laughing. “They prefer the candy anyway.”

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