John Govin opened The Weddin’ Barn on his property near Menomonie four years ago, after investing several hundred thousand dollars into the grounds to make it an ideal location for nuptials, with a capacity of 225 guests. He has typically hosted 12 to 15 weddings a year between May and October at his barn.
Govin is concerned about a recent legal analysis by outgoing state Attorney General Brad Schimel, who wrote that barns that are rented for events like weddings are subject to the state’s liquor laws and would need a license if alcohol is served. The opinion is nonbinding analysis only but could lead to changes by the state Department of Revenue.
“It will affect us. We don’t have a liquor license; we don’t want a liquor license,” Govin said. “If this were to become law, it will likely put us out of business.”
Govin said he doubts his town would issue him a liquor license. He believes the measure is being pushed by the state Tavern League, which he contends is trying to push him out of business.
“Before we started, we contacted the Department of Revenue, and their opinion was (a liquor license) wasn’t needed if the event wasn’t open to the public,” Govin said.
About a dozen wedding barns operate in western Wisconsin.
Becky Mullane, owner of Dixon’s Apple Orchard in rural Cadott, shares the same frustrations as Govin. Mullane said they also opened their wedding venue four years ago, and they hosted 55 weddings in 2018 between May and October.
“We do multiple weddings in a weekend but never two on the same day,” Mullane said. “In 2019, we are already looking at the same amount.”
Mullane was more optimistic that she would be able to obtain a license if she is required to do so.
“It would be huge, and we’d have to bite the bullet and do it,” she said. “I’m sure it’s a huge concern (throughout the barn wedding industry). And the more we have to put out, the more we have to charge our customers.”
Mullane said she’s been aware of the issue for a few years. If it were to become a law, she said it might force them to limit options for clients.
“We like to provide the freedom for our couples to offer the catering they want,” she said. “It would be unfortunate.”
Russ Krumenauer said his farm in the Chippewa County town of Lafayette, east of Chippewa Falls, has been in the family for five generations. Two years ago, they invested in refurbishing the barn and opened Orchard View Barn as a wedding venue.
“Last year, we hosted 12 weddings, and we’re shooting for 15 next year,” Krumenauer said. “We only do one wedding a weekend; it’s not a full-time business. We saw an opportunity to make money on our farm. People who come out here love the history, and no two barns are the same. It’s a nostalgic building. We really enjoy sharing it with people.”
Krumenauer said that if the state requires licenses, he hopes they make case-by-case price ranges based on how often they would be used.
Even without any proposed legislation pending, Krumenauer fears the opinion by Schimel could impact business.
“It could create uncertainty for our customers — if they are concerned about booking a wedding two years out and suddenly not being able to have alcohol there,” he said.
Duane Schultz, owner of Schultz’s Country Barn in Eleva, also doesn’t have a liquor license, instead allowing the wedding party to bring their own to his grounds. Schultz used to hold 20 weddings a year, but in recent years that has dwindled to five to 10. He said there are so many wedding barns now it has dropped his bookings. A liquor license requirement could further hamper his business, he added.
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, thinks that a license isn’t necessary.
“It’s never been a problem until recently, with the Tavern League,” Bernier said. “Barn weddings, or winery weddings, are a destination wedding. My concern is if we are too restrictive, they will go to Minnesota or Iowa, where they can do it.”
Bernier said wedding barns are great for tourism and the proponents of a liquor license requirement would curtail that out-of-town revenue.
“These people all stay in hotels. I think they’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face,” Bernier said.
The state limits the number of liquor licenses available in each municipality, based on population, she noted.
“You are going to have to have thousands of liquor licenses available for the state,” she said. “I like my tavern owners, but I don’t think they realize this isn’t best for them.”
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, operates and manages Two Acres Supper Club. He contends everyone needs to be on a level playing field.
“We’re figuring out how we proceed forward, with alcohol enforcement and alcohol regulations,” Summerfield said. “The whole point of it is one place (taverns) has to go through all sorts of regulations, and one (wedding barns) does not.”
Both Summerfield and Bernier said it is unclear if any proposed legislation on the matter would come forward next session.
Jodi Emerson, who will be sworn in as Democrat state representative for the Eau Claire area, said the timing of Schimel’s letter appears to be partisan politics.
“This is not an immediate need to get this answered,” Emerson said. “There is nothing that can’t wait for the new Legislature to be sworn in.”
However, Emerson said the issue should be looked into.
“How is it different than opening up a yard for a party, if I’m not charging for drinks?” she said. “If I rent a pavilion at a park, do I need a licensed bartender there?”