By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he’s prepared to support legislation or legal action to ensure that Nashoba Valley Winery can continue to pour its homemade wines, beers and spirits at both the Bolton winery and restaurant.
In coming to the defense of the local farm business, Baker is taking a somewhat unusual step of intervening on behalf of a single business owner contesting an administrative decision by alcohol license regulators.
Baker told the News Service that he did not support the recent decision by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to inform Rich Pelletier that after 16 years of operation he had to choose between his farmers’ manufacturing licenses or his pouring license for the on-site restaurant where he also sells his wines and beers.
“I don’t understand why after 16 years this decision was made and I think it’s one where if there’s a legal question we should solve it by challenging the legislation and if it’s an administrative issue we should solve it through a legal process, but one way or another I think this sends a bad message to small business and a bad message to farmers, both of whom I care a lot about,” Baker said in an interview in his office.
Pelletier owns the Nashoba Valley Winery, a Bolton winery, distillery and orchard where he offers tastings and bottled products for purchase. The winery also has a restaurant on the 52-acre farm where diners can purchase the locally produced wines, beers and spirits.
Over the past few weeks, Pelletier’s plight has garnered a significant amount of media attention. According to him, the ABCC informed him that he could renew his farmer’s license to produce wine, beer and distilled spirits, or his pouring license for the restaurant, but not both.
“It’s our view that his ability to continue to operate his current operation there is important for a bunch of reasons, the first is he’s been doing it for 16 years,” Baker said. “The second is it’s a great representation of what we all believe we support here in Massachusetts, which is an active and aggressive farm-to-direct consumer approach to sales and service here.”
While the ABCC falls under the jurisdiction of Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Baker said, “We’re prepared to take legal action if that’s what’s required to get there and we’re prepared to support legislation if that’s what it takes, but we think his position is thoroughly defensible and we want to support him.”
An official familiar with ongoing discussions between the administration, the Attorney General’s office and the Treasurer’s office said that meetings had taken place as recently as Monday in an attempt to find a resolution, which could take the form of legislation that would have to be approved before the end of formal sessions in July.
The ABCC, according to reports, pointed to a state law that prohibits owning a pouring license for a restaurant at the same time as owning a farmer’s manufacturing license. Regulators reportedly offered alternatives to get around the licensing issue, which included constructing a physical connection between his winery and restaurant to make it one building, or to put some of the licenses under another name.
Pelletier, who has said that without both types of licenses he could go out of business, has challenged the interpretation, but Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which is representing the ABCC, has moved to dismiss his complaint because he has not exercised all his administrative options for appeal. A judge will hear arguments for dismissal in court on Wednesday.
Baker said he has had “many conversations” with Healey’s office and Pelletier about their options. “We would probably be a party to a legal question. I don’t think we’d be suing,” Baker explained.
A Healey spokeswoman called the Nashoba Valley Winery a “vibrant community anchor that reflects the state’s commitment to local food and agriculture.”
“Our office has been in close contact with all parties and we look forward to resolving the matter in a way that allows Nashoba to continue operating as it has for years,” Healey Communications Director Cyndi Roy Gonzalez wrote in a statement to the News Service.
Asked whether he was concerned about the precedent he would be setting by intervening on behalf of a business owner, Baker said, “I view this as a small business issue and I view it as a farm-to-direct consumer issue, something that we care a lot about here. I brag all the time about the fact that Massachusetts is a top five to top-10 player in direct farm-to-consumer sales.”
A spokeswoman for Treasurer Goldberg and the ABCC said she could not comment on Nashoba Valley Winery’s case because it was the subject of ongoing litigation.