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Wade Bennett (left) of Rockridge Orchards gives potential customers a taste of his wine at the West Seattle Farmers Market. Photo by Joshua McNichols.

Wade Bennett (left) of Rockridge Orchards gives potential customers a taste of his wine at the West Seattle Farmers Market. Photo by Joshua McNichols.


Farmers Give A Taste Of Wine At Market

Joshua McNichols

Starting this month, you may see something unusual at a few of Seattle's farmers markets: beer and wine tastings. Ten farmers markets throughout the state have received approval from Washington's Liquor Control Board to give alcohol a try. If everybody behaves themselves, the program could roll out to all farmers markets statewide. KUOW's Joshua McNichols has more.


In the back of a white tent at the West Seattle Farmers Market, farmer Wade Bennett stands behind a row of bottles. The bottles contain berry wines and hard apple ciders, made from fruits he grew himself at Rockridge Orchards in Enumclaw.

As customers approach, Bennett calls out to them.

Bennett: "How ya doing?"

He pours a sample into a little plastic cup, the kind of cup you'd use to give medicine to a child.

Bennett: "That's our hard cider."

Bennett says 85 percent of his apples are too ugly to sell. But he says they're perfect for cider.

Bennett: "You know, you live in Yakima Valley, over in Wenatchee or Orondo, you can grow some of the prettiest fruit on the planet. I live in Enumclaw where it's windy, rainy and a very bad place to produce pretty fruit. But you can really produce fruit that tastes good."

Until this month, Bennett had to persuade customers at the farmers market to take a risk on his hard ciders. "Buy a bottle," he'd tell them, "you'll thank me later." Now, the Washington state Legislature has decided to let a few breweries and wineries give out samples. The West Seattle Farmers Market won the right to participate in the program through a lottery, along with nine other markets across the state. Bennett helped lobby the state Legislature to approve the program.

Customers Brad and Margaret Chodos–Irvine tried each of Bennett's four products available for tasting. I caught up to them as they left the Rockridge Orchards market stand.

McNichols: "Did you buy anything?"

Brad Chodos–Irvine: "Yes, we bought the strawberry wine and a hard apple cider."

McNichols: "Do you think it would ever compel you to buy something in larger quantities because you can taste it first?"

Margaret Chodos–Irvine: "Well, you just bought two instead of one, so probably."

Brad Chodos–Irvine: "Absolutely."

That kind of response does not surprise farmer Bennett. He says the right to offer tastings will help him sell more product. He knows this from personal experience. A few years ago, he built a tasting room at his farm in Enumclaw. Once he started offering tastes, he says his alcohol sales tripled. Now, he hopes to replicate that success at the farmers market.

Bennett: "No one is going to be able to tell you, show you or let you taste the story behind a beverage like the person who actually grew, manufactured and bottled the product. It's that simple."

The program only applies to beverages made from ingredients grown in Washington state. That requirement may have made the alcohol–tasting program more palatable for politicians in conservative agricultural districts. But some, like state Senator Bob Morton of Kettle Falls, don't agree. He says alcohol is bad, period.

Morton: "I grew up as a young person on my family farm. Adjacent to us was a tavern and I saw all too many problems with alcohol. And we have a good substitute I think and that is carbonated grape juice. We need to make our state as alcohol–free as possible and one way is to promote carbonated grape juice."

Some may laugh at Morton's love of fizzy grape juice. But temperance used to be a progressive idea: Prohibition and women's voting rights were all part of the same movement. Today our culture is becoming more comfortable with public drinking. We point to Europe, where we believe public drinking is common and underage drinking is low.

I made this point to public health official Cindy Goodwin, director of Mercer Island's Department of Youth and Family Services. She said she hears that argument all the time.

Goodwin: "And that's not true, it's kind of a myth. That, boy, the Europeans drink, and they drink with meals, and they drink with their kids — they don't have problems. Well they do. In fact, underage drinking is huge right now in most European communities. And in particular, in the affluent European communities. And they're looking towards the United States for some of the prevention work that's done here."

Goodwin stresses she's not a teetotaler. She believes farmers markets can model responsible drinking behavior. But there has to be an educational component as well. Vendors need to communicate that it's not about the quality of the buzz, but the quality of the beverage.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board takes seriously the concerns of public health officials like Goodwin. The agency plans to send 18– to 20–year–old secret agents into farmers market stalls to see if anyone fails to card them properly. If everything goes smoothly, alcohol tastings could expand to all farmers markets as early as July of 2013.

Farmer Bennett says vendors will be on their best behavior.

Bennett: "We need to prove to the Legislature and the naysayers that this can be done responsibly."

Bennett is in this for the long haul. Back at the farm, he's distilling apple brandy now. He says this brandy will take 20 years to mature. But by that time, he expects the laws around hard alcohol to loosen as well. If they do, Bennett will be there, with his little plastic cup, offering a taste.

I'm Joshua McNichols, for KUOW.

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