Several hundred Maui residents have signed a petition asking the county's liquor commission to again prohibit patrons from bringing their own wine into restaurants.
The Maui County Liquor Commission in March legalized what's known as corkage, giving restaurants with liquor licenses the option to allow customers to "bring wine onto the premise for consumption with a meal." The state's other counties already allow the practice.
The commission Wednesday received a stack of about 400 petition cards - complete with names, signatures and home addresses - asking the commission to repeal the rule. It's unclear from the cards who's behind the organized effort.
Commission Chairman James Gomes said the petition has been deemed valid, which means the panel has 30 days to either deny it or proceed to a public hearing. That decision will be made at the commission's Aug. 8 meeting, he said.
The issue has roiled the local industry, with some of Maui's top restaurateurs on both sides of the argument.
Proponents say the law allows restaurants to give their patrons a choice and often leads to added sales. Opponents say the law will hurt the pockets of employees who depend on tips from liquor sales. They also say it carries too much liability and could lead to a bring-your-own-bottle rule that allows more than just wine.
Fourteen of the island's well-known restaurateurs sent the liquor commission a letter last month requesting that the law be repealed. The letter said in part that "there is a growing number of restaurants that would like to see the law repealed as soon as possible."
It was signed by:
* Elizabeth Belbot, Capische?.
* Roy Dunn, Plantation House, Koho Grill & Bar.
* Bev Gannon, Hali'imaile General Store, Joe's Bar & Grill, Gannon's.
* Chris Kaiwi, Pineapple Grill, The Melting Pot, 100 Wines.
* Amy Kantorczyk, Ko Restaurant.
* D.K. Kodama, Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, Maui Fish & Pasta.
* James MacDonald, Pacific'O Restaurant, I'o Restaurant, Feast at Lele.
* Dickie Moon, Duke's Beach House, Hula Grill, Kimo's, Leilani's on the Beach.
* Jurg Munch, Lahaina Grill.
* David Paul, David Paul's Island Grill.
* Jacques Perwin, Spago Maui.
* Aaron Placourakis, Nick's Fish Market, Sarento's on the Beach, Son'z at Swan Court.
* Michael Rose, Longhi's Wailea.
* Randy Schoch, Ruth's Chris.
The commission Wednesday heard from more than 60 people who signed up to testify about the letter. No formal action was taken on the request in light of the formal petition. Commission rules require action only on valid petitions.
Only six people testified in favor of keeping the new law in place, including Mama's Fish House owner Floyd Christenson and Hawaii Regional Cuisine co-founder Peter Merriman.
Christenson ran newspaper ads asking the public to support the law and contact county officials. Merriman launched a radio ad campaign in support of the law.
"I question what all the fuss has been made over this law. It's very little used," Christenson said. "Last month, in the month of June, we served 24,500 people. Twenty people brought in bottled wine to have corkage. . . . Mostly when they bring it in, it's for birthdays, anniversaries, big special occasions, so it's not going to hurt anybody's income."
Christenson said he believes local catering businesses are behind the push to repeal the rule.
"The people that are close to this primarily do a lot of catering for large groups - 50 to 100 to 150 people," he said. "They were able to tell these people, 'No, you can't bring in your own liquor, we have to provide it, it's the county law.' Now they can't say that. They can still not do it, it's their choice, but it's a lot easier if they can make the liquor commission the bad guys."
Merriman, who owns Merriman's Kapalua and Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Wailea, said having a corkage option at his Kauai and Big Island restaurants has "been nothing but a benefit for us."
"It's a small amount of money, but we find it actually increases our sales," he said. "We've had virtually no problems whatsoever."
Placourakis - who owns Nick's Fish Market, Sarento's on the Beach in Wailea and Son'z at Swan Court in Lahaina - said restaurants should be able to maximize their profits with wine sales.
"It's like going to Michelin's, bringing tires in, and saying, 'Can you put them in for me, I don't want to buy them from you,' '' he said. "I don't think it's greedy to actually run a business in a way where you're trying to maximize your profits. . . . Fifteen to 25 percent of your volume comes from your wine sales."
Gannon, who owns Hali'imaile General Store, Joe's Bar & Grill, Gannon's and Celebrations Catering, said the law as written has too many gray areas, making it difficult to enforce. She said she's chosen not to allow corkage under the new law at her restaurants, which has upset customers.
"Since this law passed, because I've chosen not to allow outside wine in, I've had customers shout at my managers, tell waiters that they will never come back, walk out because we will not serve them their bottle of wine," Gannon said. "My choice not to serve outside wine will negatively impact my business. Customers will penalize me."
About 20 servers, bartenders and sommeliers of Capische?, Gannon's, Joe's Bar & Grill, Lahaina Grill and Spago Maui testified that the law will negatively impact their paychecks.
Many said they earn minimum wage and survive on tips from alcohol sales. Others said they've invested time in learning the house wines offered at their restaurants and how those pair with the food menu.
Alan Jahns, a partner with local liquor wholesaler JMD Beverages, said that while he enjoys taking his own wine to restaurants, he believes the law has too many gray areas.
He also highlighted a concern about screw-cap wine bottles opening up the potential for switching out wine for hard liquor "under the guise of a bottle of wine."
Liquor enforcement officials with the City & County of Honolulu and the County of Hawaii say they haven't encountered problems with their respective corkage rules.
Steve Morifuji, administrative officer for the County of Hawaii's Department of Liquor Control, said its rules require liquor license holders to notify the department when allowing outside liquor on their premises.
"If a licensee allows it, within 30 minutes of approval, they have to fax in what's called a private host permit, listing the time, what was brought in, the licensed area where it's consumed," he said. "As far as liability concerns, the licensee is responsible regardless if that's their own liquor or a permitted private host."
He said the department sees relatively few permits, mostly from high-end restaurants and hotels.
Greg Nishioka, administrator for the Honolulu Liquor Commission, said Honolulu follows state rules governing BYOB enforcement, which allows patrons to serve themselves their own liquor until midnight. That section of the Hawaii Revised Statutes applies only to the City & County of Honolulu.
Honolulu offers a separate BYOB license, but Nishioka said no one currently has a license. That license would allow customers to serve themselves until 2 a.m.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.