Ollie Sakhno is proud of his wine collection. He says about 40% of the bottles he sells at his Forest Hills wine bar come from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
“Very little is known about New York City, and there are very few wines, and we thought opening a wine bar that pays special attention to the Finger Lakes region would set us aside,” said Sakhno, the owner of Keuka Coffee shop.
Ten years later, he says the business model works. But in 2016, Sakhno wanted to expand his business by opening a wine shop a few blocks away on Queens Blvd. specializing in the sale of these locally produced wines. He applied for a separate license from the State Liquor Authority, but was denied.
“The letter I received explaining that research showed that all of the local stores here have more than 15% of their wines from New York State, which is just not true,” Sakhno said.
According to the State Liquor Authority (SLA), the agency considers the proximity of existing licensed stores to the applicant’s desired location, the gross sales of the nearest liquor store, population and demographic changes, and whether the applicant will offer products not currently offered by existing stores.
Paul Zuber represents local distilleries, wineries and retailers across the state.
“It really should be based on market factors and not the government telling you whether or not you would be successful,” said Zuber, executive vice president of the Business Council of New York.
He calls the standards written in the post-Prohibition 1930s “archaic.”
“It was developed for really good reasons, to limit the availability of alcohol,” Zuber said.
But these strict regulations have helped mom-and-pop business owners fend off big-box competition. In 2019, they teamed up to save Total Wine and More, a 200-store chain, from relocating to Queens. The SLA denied Total Wines’ application for a license because it determined that the area was well served by existing liquor stores.
But Sahkno says he is not part of that opposition and would welcome competition if the laws changed.
“I think that would only boost this industry,” Sakhno said.
The SLA says any changes to public convenience and benefit requirements would need to go through New York State legislation.
The governor’s budget for 2023 includes funds to convene a commission to investigate reform of alcoholic beverages control laws. This was prompted by pandemic-era to-go drinks in restaurants and bars, but the commission has been tasked with looking into modernizing and simplifying all state liquor laws.