Constance Bodine wants people to know she isn’t running a bar.

Bodine operates tasting rooms in Union, Portland and Kennebunk in connection with her Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery. But the rooms are generally open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and aren’t intended as places for excessive socializing or heavy drinking.

“It’s a few sips and you’re out,” Bodine said, and patrons are generally looking for a particular variety of wine or spirits, following up a tasting with the purchase of a bottle or two to take home. “We don’t want to be a bar.”

When the state adopted new rules for businesses to reopen this summer, tasting room operations were lumped in with bars, because their licenses are the same, and told they could only operate outdoors. But Bodine and others are worried about the future of tasting rooms if the rules aren’t changed before cold weather hits in another month or two.

Happily, the summer of 2020 was warm and mostly dry, she said, so moving tasting rooms outside was a pleasant change of pace. But, Bodine said, on a cool and rainy Saturday a few weeks ago, she was inundated with callers who wanted to sample her products but asked if they could do so inside. Bodine said nearly three dozen told her they weren’t coming because they didn’t want to drink on a patio in the wind and rain.

“We’re not going to last if this keeps up,” said Bodine, who has been calling state lawmakers and regulators at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development to modify the rules.

State officials have said the operators of tasting rooms could apply for restaurant licenses to allow them to operate indoors, although there would be strict occupancy limits. But Bodine said the switch would require paying $1,500 for the new license, buying and installing new equipment for cooking, adding more insurance coverage and probably hiring new employees and increasing the hours for her current workers, who would have to come in earlier to start preparing the food and stay longer to clean up.

Uncertainty is rippling throughout the wine-making, brewing and distilling industry, which has been burgeoning in Maine, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Rising Tide Brewery owner Heather Sanborn at her outdoor tasting room in Portland on Sunday. She said, “The plan is really to stay out here all year long and to just pivot and adjust as the weather throws us challenges.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The bottom line is our breweries have been able to survive by changing their business models to prioritize takeout as well as the outside (tasting) experience,” he said. “But as the weather is shifting here, there’s definitely a lot of concern among brewers.”

Sullivan said his group and others have had ongoing talks with officials at the Department of Economic and Community Development, which has been in charge of implementing Gov. Janet Mills’ reopening plan.

“Everybody’s trying to trust the science and we’re trying to engage with the state,” he said. “Businesses do well with a sense of certainty and, in this environment, that’s very difficult.”

The Maine Winery Guild said in a statement issued Monday that it met this month to renew its call for the state to relax the rules for wine tasting.

A state representative told guild members about the option to obtain restaurant licenses, although its members noted the higher costs associated with that move. They also said such a step would do nothing to enhance the safety of workers or customers.

According to the guild, there are 27 wineries, 17 distilleries and nearly 200 breweries in Maine, employing over 2,000 people full time and providing $98 million in wages. Beverage manufacturing remains one of Maine’s fastest growing industries, with a 66 percent increase in employment since 2010 based on Maine employment and wage data, it said.

Heather Sanborn spaces out tables more than 6 feet apart in Rising Tide Brewery’s outdoor tasting room in Portland on Sunday. She said Rising Tide maintained its outdoor seating last winter, before the coronavirus pandemic, and did well.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Ned Wight, who runs New England Distilling in Portland and is head of the Maine Distillers’ Guild, said his organizations and others have scheduled a call with Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson this week to discuss next steps.

He said his company has managed to continue to offer tastings this summer by setting up tables in the distillery’s parking lot. But that will end as it gets colder, and the company isn’t making any preparations to continue into late fall and winter.

“We don’t see that as an option,” Wight said. “We were able to make things work through the summertime, and now we’re coming up on the next big change.”

But Heather Sanborn, a state senator who owns Rising Tide Brewery on the Portland peninsula, said she will continue to push the outdoor experience through the winter at her tasting room.

Rising Tide obtained a restaurant license about three years ago to broaden what it offers to customers, she said, so it could move tastings indoors. But Sanborn said she thinks it will be safer for her staff and customers to continue operating outdoors this winter.

“We’re making plans to try to open (outside) all winter,” she said. “We’re going to ask our customers to embrace winter.”

Sanborn said Rising Tide maintained its outdoor seating last winter, before the coronavirus pandemic, and it did well, although she admits the winter of 2019-20 was unusually mild.

She said that Mainers appreciate being outdoors even when temperatures dip and the winds blow.

“It’s a mindset as much as anything,” Sanborn said. “You see that in March, when you have a 32-degree sunny day and everybody wants to be outside because it feels warm.”

Sanborn said she also saw that when she attended the winter carnival in Quebec recently and bars and restaurants continued to operate outdoor spaces.

“Mostly, people were just dressed for it,” she said. “It’s up to Mainers and Portlanders to put on some warm socks and a hat and grab a cozy fleece blanket and come on out. Grab a fleece blanket and put it in your truck so it’s always there.”

Kate Foye, who heads up legislative affairs and communications for the Department of Economic and Community Development, said it is looking into those kinds of ideas as it prepares for the next stage of reopening for the state.

“The department understands the specific challenges facing breweries, wineries, and distilleries, particularly as the weather cools,” she said in an email.

The department is working with public health experts to explore how to safely move some operations inside, she said, and “is also looking at other models used by cold weather areas like Quebec and Nordic countries who utilize outdoor service year-round.”

Foye did not provide examples of some things that restaurants and bars do in those countries that the state might consider.

Bodine, the Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery operator, says the state has done a good job handling the pandemic so far and she doesn’t want to rush the reopening. But she also doesn’t want her industry to get ignored.

She noted that the state is allowing schools to reopen to in-person learning and said there’s no comparison between the risk of the coronavirus spreading in a school environment versus a small tasting room.

“Wait a minute,” she said, that’s “800 people in a closed building for six or eight hours. Typically, there are two or four people in our tasting room at one time.”

“I am trying to save my business,” she said. “I’m trying to work my business with half the employees. Now with the weather changing, is this going to be sustainable for us? It’s not.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.