Gone, but not forgotten: SB620

Interior of a governmental senate room with chairs and desks.
We had high hopes for California SB 620, but the bill was squashed before it could be heard.

Remember way back in March 2020, when we were fresh-faced, full of life, and feeling optimistic about the game-changing bill SB 620 as it headed to the California Senate? Well, here we are in September, and we're sorry to say that SB 620 was nipped in the bud before it was even heard by the Senate.

What did SB 620 mean for California distillers and small spirits businesses?

Since last March feels like a lifetime ago, here’s a little refresher. SB 620 was a bill spearheaded by members of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild (CADG), with CADG executive director Cris Steller leading the charge, backed by industry groups like the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA). Even big distributors got on board with some revisions.

According to Steller’s quarterly update in the Fall 2022 print issue of Artisan Spirit Magazine (online version not yet posted), SB 620 was a direct result of those dark early days of the pandemic, when distilleries first shuttered their tasting rooms and pondered whether or not a whiskey maker was also an essential worker. A temporary allowance was made in California for craft distillers to ship direct to consumer (DTC) and, for a while, that small mercy kept a lot of folks afloat. Unfortunately, DTC shipping privileges expired in March this year.

Unsurprisingly, craft distilleries saw a serious sales decline throughout the summer.

As we suspected, direct to consumer shipping is a real lifeline for small spirits businesses.

Enter SB 620, the bill that shoulda/woulda/coulda made it possible for craft distilleries to continue DTC shipping indefinitely, thereby supporting small distillers in the midst of a post-pandemic recession. We rooted for this bill hard, even though it wasn’t clear whether our slightly different license—not quite distiller, not quite distributor—would be included. As it turned out, we weren't included, even in the early drafts. But we still liked the idea, and maybe the door could have been wedged open enough for another try next year.

Alas, it was not to be. In Steller's words:

"Forces not originally considered came forward to voice opposition, even though the bill did not affect their membership in any way. The Wine Institute was concerned that accepting limits [for distilled spirits] may be seen as the new direction DTC shipping could go and wine's unlimited shipping harmed. ACSA and the distributors stayed and supported CADG while other industry groups did not; ultimately the bill was pulled from being heard and died."

California craft distillers aren't giving up the fight for DTC shipping.

Steller now says he is working on stop-gap solutions to temporarily reinstate DTC shipping, and that CADG will start working on a longer-term effort later this year. CADG is a driving force for spirits industry change in CA, and they don't mess around. They were behind the brand new California Type 74 craft distiller's license in 2015, arguably the most important legislation for California craft spirits producers since the Twenty-first amendment ended Prohibition in 1933.

While we were discouraged by SB 620's disappointing fizzle in the Senate, we're also really glad that CADG isn't backing down. SB 620 was just the beginning of craft spirits catching up with the California wine industry on DTC shipping, and we're sure it's in the cards.

Until then, it’s business as usual for us—tasting, bottling, experimenting, hustling, and writing about the ways we want to see change in the spirits industry.