Op-Ed | Prohibition-era alcohol laws are keeping NYS’s wine market in the 20th century

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Photo provided by Keuka Kafe

My name is Ollie Sakhno. I own a wine bar called Keuka Kafe in Forest Hills, Queens, which, alongside a global wine menu, features diverse and locally driven wines from the Finger Lakes region in New York State.

When I opened Keuka Kafe over ten years ago, in the spring of 2013, we experienced immediate success and recognition. One of the reasons was how popular the Finger Lakes wine and other local NYS drinks were with our customers. We saw firsthand that there’s a serious demand for NY State wines that has not been met by local liquor stores and other restaurants and bars. We confirmed this by searching the shelves of the liquor stores in our local area and came to the realization that none of them had any serious local offerings if any at all.

Keuka Kafe located at 112-04 Queens Blvd. Forest Hills

We constantly experienced surprise or shock from our customers when they could not find any local NYS bottles of wine in their neighborhood stores. They would often complain to us on the lack of diversity in their liquor stores as they enjoyed our local selection.

I would constantly be asked why there was such a scarcity of local wines in the area, and I could not give them any reasonable explanation.

This gave us the idea that the locally based wine shop featuring unusual wines, and only wines, can succeed in Forest Hills. We applied for such a license with SLA in the Spring of 2017. Unfortunately, we were denied.

With the current Alcohol Beverage Control law regulatory framework, when a new small business owner wants to open a new store in a neighborhood, the system provides the current owners of the other liquor stores in the area with the notification of upcoming competition. This gives these owners a chance to prevent new businesses from opening a store by claiming hardship and misrepresenting their stores, subsequently killing any new competition. In my case, all the local store owners in the neighborhood claimed to have at least 10% of their inventory from NYS, which I know is simply not true.

The business of selling wine is being treated with a Prohibition level of vigor, which does not reflect the changes in our society over the last 100 years. Unlicensed stores selling marijuana products imported from overseas are popping up in front of schools and churches, three on the block. Bodegas are selling alcoholic drinks that look like kid’s beverages. At the same time, the wine shop featuring products from New York State is considered a vice in need of over-regulation.

The State Liquor Authority has shown a great deal of understanding and compassion during the COVID-19 pandemic and the following years of recovery that our industry needed. My wine bar only survived because of the emergency measures enacted by the state.

I hope that the leadership of our state and SLA will change the outdated laws and allow healthy competition in the world of wine selling. It will benefit the customers and will generally make the buying experience in New York fun!


Ollie Sakhno is the owner of Keuka Kafe Wine Bar & Kitchen in Forest Hills, Queens.