Colorado Restaurant Association wines and dines elected officials

The Colorado Statesman

Senate Bill 60 and the fight to drink light

The Colorado Restaurant Association’s Blue Ribbon Legislative Reception on Jan. 12 attracted dozens of legislators, old and new, to the Capitol Peak Ballroom on the top floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Denver. One of the most highly anticipated events of the year on legislators’ social calendars, name-tagged suits flooded the space in less than half an hour.

Tom Carlson, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Pete Meersman of the Colorado Restaurant Association at this year’s Blue Ribbon event Jan. 12 at the Grand Hyatt.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Derek Figueroa, COO of Seattle Fish Co., CRA Director Thom Parker, account manager with Robinson Dairy, and Jim Smith, president of Republic National Distribution Co.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Karen Kristopeit-Parker, owner of The Fresh Fish Co.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Tony Denovellis from AAA Colorado at the Jan. 12 reception at the Grand Hyatt.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman
Rep. Chris Holbert, R­ Parker, with wife Diane.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

The restaurant industry in Colorado is at the cornerstone of tourism, generating over $11.7 billion in revenue, according to the CRA. Over 12,000 establishments across the state employ approximately 290,000 workers. Peter Meersman, president and CEO of the restaurant trade organization, estimated that 300 people attended the event including about 70 legislators.

“Our intention is to have a social evening,” Meersman explained. “We are not lobbying. We want to thank the legislators for their commitment to service.” Meersman recognizes that many legislators consider this the best social event of the year. “Well, we are the Colorado Restaurant Association. We should be able to put on a pretty good event.”

Many of the restaurant sponsors I was familiar with, including the Broker Restaurant, Bonefish Grill, CityGrille, Elway’s Cherry Creek, Lala’s Wine Bar, and Outback Steakhouse. Other great eateries that were showcasing their cuisine were Baca at the Inverness Hotel, Cinzzetti’s, Fresh Fish Company, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, Mangia Bevi, Metro State College Student Chapter, and The Broadmoor Hotel.

The beverage sponsors of the stellar evening were Republic National Distributing Company, Beverage Distributors and Southern Wine & Spirits. The featured wine was a Beringer Founders Estate Merlot, and two wines from Cupcake Vineyards: a Chardonnay and a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, the last of which I sipped while gliding through the room and taking photographs. As always, my hands were full with pen and pad, camera, and glass of wine while meandering through clusters of political guests, and as always, I didn’t spill a drop.

I’d heard good things about Cupcake Vineyards, and was pleasantly sated by the Sauv Blanc. The grapes were grown in Marlborough, New Zealand, and the tasting notes say that it has “levels of complexity and a vibrant zing, reminiscent of a lemon chiffon cupcake. It’s made up of integrated flavors of Meyer lemons, Key limes, and a finish that awakens the appetite.” That’s for sure. Since I hadn’t had anything to eat from any of the great Colorado restaurants that were serving food, I needed a snack by the time I got home, especially since I was now thinking about cupcakes.

I asked Meersman whether the CRA was interested in any new legislation coming up at the capitol this year, and he mentioned Senate Bill 60, which will allow liquor licensees to sell 3.2 percent alcohol products. Obviously, the licensees he refers to are restaurants and pubs that serve alcohol for consumption on the premises and not liquor and wine shops. Currently, even brewpubs that brew low alcohol beer on the premises are not legally allowed to serve it on premises. Sounds like a technical glitch in the legislation, right? It usually does when it comes to Colorado’s liquor laws, but there is always more to it.

Well, since the grocery stores are going to bat for their right to sell full-strength beer, wine and spirits again this year, there may be more attention paid to restaurants and pubs that have been serving the low alcohol stuff under the radar, which is against the law. This bill and co-prime Senate sponsors, Betty Boyd and Jean White, as well as co-prime sponsors Reps. Bob Gardner and Andy Kerr, may be trying to stay ahead of the game. “If it doesn’t pass, it will create a problem for operators,” Meersman predicted. He feels it is the “right thing to do.”

I spoke with Senator Boyd about the bill. “It was apparent after changes we had made last year, that restaurants were no longer able to sell light beer. People are accustomed to ordering it in restaurants and bars.” She added, “To say that restaurants and bars can’t sell low alcohol products is not a good message to send.” Boyd just wants to keep the status quo and maintain current expectations by consumers. “Last year, an amendment required the alcohol content to be printed on labels.”

Boyd said that the Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue “has not kept pace with the statute from last year.” If SB 60 passes, it doesn’t look like they will need to. This bill will be especially helpful to establishments that only have wine or beer licenses. Though alcohol content can be seen on the packages behind the bar, it will not be available to consumers who order wine by the glass, nor beer from a keg. This includes popular products such as Guinness, Boyd said.

I also spoke with Rep. Kerr and asked him how he got involved in becoming a co-prime sponsor of this bill. “I have a background working in restaurants, and I’m always interested in legislation that will impact the industry,” he said. Though the grocery store battle to sell full-strength wine and beer as well as liquor is a different issue altogether, it does seem somewhat related.

He said that even though the issue of serving lower alcohol beverages “hasn’t been enforced in the past, it has now been brought out in the open.” He said that when a previous law passed allowing grocery stores to sell the lower strength beer, the market was essentially split between the stores and the bars. The grocery stores could sell the low alcohol products and the restaurants and bars could sell the full-strength stuff.

Forcing customers to drink higher or “full strength” products when they may want to drink responsibly can send kind of a mixed message. According to Boyd, even if it doesn’t make sense, “The law is the law and it should be enforced.”

To some, it is simply a matter of logistics. According to Mark Couch, public information officer for the Department of Revenue, Liquor Enforcement Division, “We enforce whatever they tell us to enforce.” Couch doesn’t feel that SB 60 is a bill that will “affect our enforcement costs in any way.” The law as it currently stands regarding this issue is that bars and restaurants are not allowed to serve products that contain below 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, nor 4 percent by volume. Couch said, “Certain beers fall beneath that measurement.”

Couch also said that last year, Senate Bill 83 amended a rule meant to enhance the enforcement, which required manufacturers to file with the state Liquor Enforcement Division the same paperwork they need to file with federal officials. However, the Liquor Enforcement Division was “not given the resources to have testers in restaurants and bars.” He said that making sure establishments are not serving alcohol to minors or visibly drunk patrons were more important priorities.

Jason Hopfer, a lobbyist for Circle K and 7-Eleven convenience stores, has another perspective. The stores oppose Senate Bill 60 for the simple reason that certain businesses are allowed to sell certain products. Hopfer said that convenience stores are just looking for a solution that treats everyone fairly. “This law has been on the books for decades, and it failed to be fully enforced. The only change we made (last year) was to give the department the resources to enforce it,” he added.

“It is all about the definition of certain products,” Hopfer stressed. Not speaking for grocery stores, he said the convenience stores he represents “are not interested in selling wine and liquor.” He is aware that many of the current liquor laws are antiquated. “The whole issue of the 3.2 percent line was to help breweries to brew beer in the 1930s,” he said. Nevertheless, he said the law should be able to be enforced, and it currently requires testing of products that establishments have been selling without a license. “That’s just not fair,” he stated.

Hopfer also wanted me to know that they did try to work it out. “We went to the restaurants to see if we could solve this, but at the time, they told us that they were not putting together any bills of this nature.”

I honestly never know which side to take when I talk to both proponents and opponents of any issue. I think I need a drink. What time is it?

Getting back to the party, about halfway through the event several people stepped up to the podium including House Speaker Frank McNulty, Sen. Pro-Tem Betty Boyd and Meersman, all welcoming the legislators.

I was also lucky enough to meet our former mayor and new governor, John Hickenlooper, who was of course drinking a beer. Hickenlooper has attended this event formerly as a brewpub owner, and as a mayor, according to Meersman, who was happy the governor accepted the invitation to attend the get-together just a day after he was sworn-in.

After the governor graciously posed for a photo or two, I mingled with Reps. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, Angela Williams, D-Denver, and her guest, Richard Lewis, who coyly said he had “no political aspirations at this time.” It was a hoot. I got to put a lot of faces to names that evening, and of course got to taste another fabulous wine.