It has never been easy getting a glass of wine in Utah. Just ask Faith Sweeten, co-owner of Log Haven Restaurant in Salt Lake City. "We couldn't even bring up the fact we had wine," Sweeten said, "unless the customer asked about it." That's just one of the many intricacies of Utah's liquor laws, which have long frustrated the state's restaurateurs and wine lovers, as well as visitors from around the country.
As Salt Lake City prepares to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, some of those laws are changing. In late July, a federal appeals court struck a blow to a Prohibition-era regulation that prohibited the promotion and advertising of wine and liquor. In its preliminary injunction, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver, said that the Utah law was a violation of commercial free speech. (A similar ban on beer advertising in Utah was overturned in 1996.)
It is unlikely the state will appeal the latest decision, according to Thom Roberts, an assistant Utah attorney general who argued to uphold the law. On Aug. 9, the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission announced new "emergency rules," valid for 120 days while open to public comment. These rules are expected to remain standing after that time.
Restaurants are now allowed to ask customers if they would like a drink and can offer a wine or cocktail list without waiting for a customer to first request one. Wine can also be listed on the regular menu, and businesses can more freely promote wine-and-food events. Stores and restaurants can now also post signs regarding wine and liquor and can advertise alcohol in newspapers and magazines and on radio and TV.
"It's just a huge thing to be able to be up-front about what we have to offer, to be able to walk up to a table and produce a wine list right off the bat," said Jeff Ward, managing partner of Park City's 350 Main Brasserie, which holds the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine list.
Sweeten agrees: "The timing couldn't be better. There were sponsors coming to the Olympics that were not going to be able to tell consumers about their product."
Utah's liquor laws are largely influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members make up about 75 percent of state's population. In keeping with their religious beliefs, Mormons don't drink alcohol.
The wine-promotion case began back in 1996 when Salt Lake City attorney Brian Barnard filed a lawsuit on behalf of Utah tavern owners and a local magazine that was prohibited from publishing a wine and dining guide.
Once largely a local concern, the state's idiosyncratic liquor laws have been widely debated ever since Salt Lake City and nearby ski towns were selected as sites for the Winter Olympics events. What visiting Frenchman or Italian, after all, could fathom the notion of a lunch or dinner without wine?
Change has been coming slowly. In June, after heated debate, Salt Lake City officials gave the OK to allow Olympic revelers to drink wine and beer in a designated area near city hall.
Even with the new rules, as Ward puts it, a few "quirks" remain. He noted that customers cannot drink wine or alcohol at a restaurant bar unless they order food or have plans to eat there.
In addition, Utah bars can still sell only beer. Wine and liquor are available at private clubs that require customers to buy a membership. (However, short-term membership can cost as little as $5 for two weeks, and existing members can also sponsor guests.)
Wine is also sold on a limited scale in package stores. The state's Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control operates 35 of the liquor stores in Utah, and there are another 97 independent stores authorized by the state.
Restaurateurs are cautious about the impact the new rules will have. Mike Jackson -- wine buyer for Tuscany, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner in Salt Lake City -- expects wine sales to increase, but he's not making any drastic changes. "We're just kind of waiting to see what happens," he said.
For Ward, it's a matter of pragmatism. "Some things just aren't going to change," he said. "But we'll take what we can get."
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