SOUTHERN INDIANA — Not long ago Wilbert Best, owner of Best Vineyards and Winery near Elizabeth, had a request from an event center in Corydon for some wine for a wedding party.

But because of state law, Best was forbidden to simply hop in his car and drive 15 minutes to deliver his wine.

"I said, 'I can't sell this to you,'" Best said of his reply to the event center. 

Legislation making its way through the Statehouse would ease restrictions on small wineries for the self-distribution of their product.

House Bill 1422, authored by state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, would give farm wineries access to a micro-wholesaler permit that would allow them to distribute up to 12,000 gallons of wine annually. As the law is written now, permit holders are not allowed to own a winery.

"The way the law is now creates unnecessary complications and challenges for small wineries," Clere said. "The language in House Bill 1422 is aimed at simplifying that and making it easier for small wineries to get their products to market, to get their wine on store shelves and restaurants."

If passed, the measure, which includes other alcohol-related provisions, would be "huge" for start-up wineries, according to Best. The key to it all is distribution.

More established wineries, like Best and Turtle Run Winery near Corydon, work with distributors to get their product into liquor stores and restaurants. But the new winery on the block must establish a foothold before a distributor will even glance their way. Of the 95 or so wineries in Indiana, only about 20 work with distributors.

"They're completely locked out," Best said of start-ups.

If a new winery is allowed to self-distribute 12,000 gallons of wine, which is equivalent to about 5,000 cases, it can make a big difference between survival and failure, according to Best. Instead of losing about 30 percent of profit from each bottle to a distributor, a winemaker could potentially make $100 off a case of wine. Sell 100 cases and that could translate into $10,000 in income.

"That's pretty significant, particularly for the first couple of years," Best said. "It allows you to do more advertising, it allows you to pay off debt quicker from start-up costs. All those avenues really help a small, start-up business."

Then the distributorships take note — even if it means cutting into profit margins.

"For a growing business there's a lot of expense involved with going out and doing that," Best said. "The question is are you willing to accept that expense, or not grow your business? I don't know anybody not willing to do that. We want to grow our business to the size where distributors want to represent us."

Distribution itself has complicated the livelihood of winemakers — and the spirits industry, as a whole — as the number of distributorships in Indiana has decreased over the last several years.

"There has been a lot of consolidation of distributors, and that, along with other factors, has made it more difficult for small wineries to get market exposure, or even market access," Clere said.

Southern Indiana winemakers have seen it firsthand.

"There are wineries that are just stuck right now," said Jim Pfeiffer, owner of Turtle Run, who works with Johnson Brothers Liquor Distributing Co. "They can't self-distribute, and distributors aren't picking them up. There are not enough distributors in the state. The ones that exist kind of serve as an oligarchy."

Best has had his own difficulties. His first distributor went bankrupt in February 2018 and it took him until November to link up with Bartholomew County Beverage, and his is the only winery on the company's roster. 

"I think we're growing," said Best, whose wine is available in about 50 locations. "It's a slow, lengthy process."

Clere's bill, which was co-authored by Reps. Karen Engleman, R-Corydon; Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville; and Matt Lehman, R-Berne, has not been without controversy.

Wine distributors Republic National and Southern Glazer's both oppose the proposed legislation, said Jim Purucker, the executive director of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Indiana, which represents the distributors.

Purucker said he's concerned that larger companies may take advantage of the change and that the 12,000 cap won't stay.

Still, the bill sailed through the House with a more than two-thirds majority, and now goes in front of the Senate, where it will be co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville; Chris Garten, R-Charlestown; and Mark Messmer, R-Jasper.

"This is a good policy, and I think it is very important for wineries in our area and all across the state, many of which are struggling to survive as a result of what's been happening with distribution," Clere said.

As for Best, if the bill becomes law, he envisions wineries contacting retailers in a 60-to-100-mile radius and slowly taking over those accounts. It would also allow him to deal with event centers directly — and not miss out on any more weddings.

"Things like that give us a little more flexibility," he said of the micro-wholesaler permit. "The permit doesn't cost that much, so in the grand scheme of things, we'd be crazy not to get it."

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

© 2019 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.