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Utah liquor store offers wine education courses — minus tastings

Posted at 6:50 PM, Aug 31, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The Harris Ave. wine store offered a first for Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services.

Employees stood at tables and talked to customers about wines of the world and what to look for when choosing a bottle.

"This is the first time we’ve done something like this," said DABS Commission Chair Tara Thue. "We really wanted a chance to feature the information our employees have."

The courses were part of a sort-of reopening for the Harris Ave. store — the state's largest wine store — which had been significantly impacted by massive road construction on 300 West that finally wrapped up.

"Because of that, we have not seen people patronizing the store quite as much and our staff have just been such troopers to stay engaged, stay here," said DABS Executive Director Tiffany Clason.

It's also another effort by the Cox administration to offer more to consumers from the liquor agency most commonly associated with its control over alcohol in Utah (the agency was renamed from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in a move to focus more on service).

But Thursday's wine education event also took pains to not run afoul of Utah liquor laws that prohibit explicit advertising or promotion. Clason said employees are allowed to share their knowledge of a wine, its varieties and its origins "but not sharing specific information on specific products or anything like that that would be considered advertising or promotion."

The event also did not offer an opportunity for people to "try before you buy." Signs tacked up in the store included a gentle warning that there would be no wine tastings offered.

"We’re definitely not doing or hosting wine tastings today," Clason told FOX 13 News. "That is not permissible in the state of Utah, according to statute."

The lack of ability for a wine tasting frustrates the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, which plans to press the Utah State Legislature to start allowing them in some cases.

"Utah's an interesting place," said Michele Corigliano, SLARA's executive director. "Did you know that in Utah, [restaurant] owners can’t even taste with their brokers? So when they bring in new alcohol, they have to do it blind unless they go out and purchase that and try it on their own. We really want to change that law, because it doesn’t make any sense."

Corigliano told FOX 13 News she viewed the law prohibiting wine tastings as "archaic." Wine tastings can be offered in established restaurants, bars and wineries, or under a special event permit that the DABS offers.

Some who attended Thursday's wine education event said they were still glad to see it being offered and found it helpful.

"I think it’s really great. It’s something I would like to see at all of the stores and all of the time," said Heather King, a food writer who runs SLCLunches.com. "Because without being able to sample, there’s really no way for people to know what wine they’d like. Those wine educators are so critical."

King offered some praise to DABS store employees for their knowledge of wines in helping customers find wines they might enjoy.

Clason said the DABS would see how reaction to the wine education event is before offering it in the future.

"I think if the feedback was this is a really positive thing for our customers and also for our staff, we’d like to see how we could incorporate this where it is appropriate," she said.