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Elk Creek: Uncorked

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By The Staff

Wines bottled by Owen County’s Elk Creek Vineyard could reach mores shelves if state lawmakers approve the sale of wine in grocery stores next year.

 

At least that’s the hope of Elk Creek Vineyard owner Curtis Sigretto, who helped ferment a plan presented to state lawmakers last session to increase visibility of his and other Kentucky-made wines. The bill would have allowed wine sales in 350 to 400 Kentucky grocery stores – most notably, large supermarket retailers like Kroger and Remke. But the bill soured in the House after lawmakers failed to call it for a vote.

 

Supporters estimated the change would have produced $55 million in new tax revenue for the state over the next five years. It might have spurred revenue here by creating more local winery jobs.

 

“I think it’s good for all the wineries in Kentucky,” said Sigretto. “We can definitely use more avenues to sell our products.”

 

Why did the plan fail?

 

Chairwoman of the Licensing and Occupations Committee, Rep. Joni Jenkins, Democrat-Louisville, said the bill arrived too late last session to give it a fair hearing.

 

Many smaller stores didn’t welcome increased competition from larger retailers. The Kentucky Vineyard Society – a group dedicated to promoting grape growth – remained neutral on the bill. That likely immobilized the plan further.

 

However, Sigretto and other proponents of wine deregulation are being leveraged by lobbyists from the state’s Food With Wine Coalition – a group that includes Kroger and other big supermarket retailers. The coalition is poised to find a lawmaker to sponsor the bill as early as next session.

 

“We’re continuing to work in the direction to revise laws to get wine in food stores,” said Luke Schmidt, spokesperson for the coalition.

 

The plan would be welcomed by consumers, who are expressing growing appetites for wine, Schmidt said.

 

CLOSER LOOK

 

It would also be welcomed by Sigretto, a New Jersey native, who eyes expanding his Owen estate.

 

In the two years since his operation began, it’s blossomed into the state’s largest winery – an empire that reportedly attracts more visitors than any other winery in the state. Elk Creek boasts a deli, banquet operations, lodging and a concert series that attracts big-name stars, like grammy award-winning country musician Sara Evans, who will appear there Sept. 27.

 

Those are no small feats for any winery, especially one located in Owen County – an area that has seen only modest growth in the past decades, and one that has historically prohibited the sale of alcohol.

 

Although the county remains “dry,” Elk Creek Vineyard received authorization to sell alcohol under a revised statute, only after it narrowly passed approval from voters in the precinct in its second special election.

 

Two votes initially killed the winery from opening in September 2004. After a controversial precinct reconfiguration, the winery gained approval in May 2005 by a 183-122 vote, and opened at the corner of Hwys. 227 and 330.

 

Sigretto said that since its opening, the winery has gained more acceptance from locals.

 

It’s also gained acceptance from wine lovers around the state and nation.

 

While expanded grocery store sales could catapult Elk Creek’s popularity, Sigretto is eyeing another possibility: Sunday sales.

 

SERVING ON THE SABBATH

 

County law currently prohibits the business from serving on Sunday, a law Sigretto hopes can be overturned with intervention from the Kentucky Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

 

“Obviously I’d love to be open on Sunday, but right now the law is kind of sketchy,” Sigretto said.

 

State law prohibits counties with smaller cities to even consider Sunday sales.

 

Sigretto projects that Sunday sales would increase the operation’s annual revenues by as much as $500,000.

 

“We also don’t book as many rooms on Sunday [at the lodge] because the winery’s not open and no one wants to come,” he said. “If we were open on Sunday we would have a nice brunch.” And that could be a big draw, Sigretto said.

 

“It’s not as big a deal as it used to be,” Sigretto said of selling alcohol on Sundays.

 

Fayette, Jefferson and counties in Northern Kentucky already permit Sunday sales.

 

But Owenton Mayor David “Milkweed” Wotier, who is also a Baptist preacher, said if and when the door opens for local Sunday wine sales, there will likely be only scattered support here.

 

“The sacredness of the Sabbath is fastly eroding from our society,” Wotier said. “The Sabbath doesn’t mean anything to many people anymore. I know there’s a lot of social drinkers, but without the right guidance it can be out of control.”

 

Still, it won’t be Wotier’s council or flock who would ultimately decide. A majority of county magistrates would make the final decision on Sunday wine sales.

 

What does the county’s top leader think of those chances?

 

It’s never been discussed, according to Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O’Banion.

 

“But we ought to have the same right to debate – whether for or against – this issue on the local level,” he said.

 

But wine lovers shouldn’t toast yet. Because the law doesn’t even allow magistrates here to debate the issue. O’Banion said it’s pretty much a moot point for now.