Maui restaurants will continue having the option of allowing customers to bring their own bottle of wine to enjoy with meals.
A petition challenging the practice - signed by several hundred residents - failed Wednesday before the Maui County Liquor Control Commission.
The commission in March made it legal for restaurants with liquor licenses to charge a corkage fee to allow customers to "bring wine onto the premise for consumption with a meal." The state's other counties already allow the practice.
Fourteen of the island's well-known restaurateurs sent the commission a letter in June requesting that the law be repealed, prompting the group to revisit the topic.
The letter was signed by owners or representatives of Lahaina Grill, Joe's Bar & Grill, Gannon's, Pineapple Grill, Plantation House, Capische?, Spago Maui, Nick's Fish Market, Sarento's on the Beach and Ruth's Chris, among others.
At the commission's July meeting, members received a more formal petition to repeal the new law, and said they had 30 days to either deny it or accept it and proceed with rule-making.
The nine-member commission Wednesday failed to get enough votes to either accept or deny the petition. But under its rules, failing to get a majority vote - a minimum of five votes - means the matter is considered denied.
Commissioners Neldon Mamuad, Lee Ohigashi and Vice Chairwoman Monica Revells voted to deny the petition. Members Mary-Doreen Albarano, Henry Kauka Jr., William Kennison and Zachary Paz voted to accept the petition.
Chairman James Gomes and member Frank Sylva were absent.
Discussion among the commissioners took place behind closed doors in executive session. Revells, who ran the meeting in Gomes' absence, declined to comment after the meeting.
Because alcohol sales make up a big portion of dining sales, opponents of the existing law argue it will take money away from their bottom lines.
Maui chef Bev Gannon of Hali'imaile General Store, Joe's Bar & Grill, Gannon's and Celebrations Catering has been a vocal opponent of the bring-your-own-bottle rule. She denied being "the instigator" behind the move, but said she helped work on the June letter to the commission.
"I'm getting beat up by people saying I'm greedy and I want this and I want that. No, I want to keep my doors open," Gannon said.
She testified that the law as written has too many gray areas and presents liability issues. She's chosen not to allow corkage under the new law at her restaurants, which has upset customers.
She said that she was disappointed with Wednesday's decision.
"All I can say is we tried," she said after the meeting. "The sad thing is that, ultimately, none of us will have a choice but to accept the rule because in the world of restaurants, you don't have the choice to say no. In this instance, it will be detrimental to people's businesses. But we're going to all just have to live with it."
The owners of Mama's Fish House have been on the other side of the argument, even buying newspaper advertisements asking the public to support the law.
Karen Christenson, the company's vice president and daughter of owners Floyd and Doris Christenson, testified that "very few" of the busy restaurant's customers take advantage of bringing their own wine, but the company appreciates having the option.
"On the financial side, we are collecting a $35 corkage fee, which our customers are happy to pay for the privilege of bringing their own wine," she said. "This is about the same profit we would make on our lower tier wines, and we didn't have to order, receive, store or stock this bottle. . . . The law as written gives us the option."
More than 60 people testified at the July meeting, and another 40 people testified Wednesday, many of them repeat testifiers.
Most were servers, bartenders and sommeliers, who asked the commission to repeal the law, saying it has the potential to negatively impact their paychecks. Many said they believe the law will diminish their tips.
Christenson claimed "your bosses are misleading you for their own financial reasons."
At one point during Wednesday's meeting, it appeared the commission was leaning toward repealing the law and instead requiring restaurants to seek a special permit to offer customers the option of bringing their own alcoholic beverage.
The commission's attorney, First Deputy Corporation Counsel Edward Kushi, asked Gannon what she thought about that alternative.
Gannon replied that she would have to think about it.
Some hotel representatives testified that the law could put them at a disadvantage for large catering events and weddings should customers want to bring in wine by the caseload instead of buying it through the hotel.
After the petition vote failed, the commission unanimously approved a request for the Department of Liquor Control to draft a proposed amendment to the law that would exclude hotel and condominium hotel liquor licensees from offering corkage.
That proposal will be considered at the commission's September meeting.
Carol Reimann, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, had testified in favor of a repeal. She said after the meeting that she was shocked by the commission's decision in light of how many testifiers opposed the law.
But she added: "We're grateful they're considering exempting the hotels, definitely, and we would hope they might consider all of our food and beverage outlets."
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.