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Despite new state law, there's no merlot to go in Gainesville
But other rules affecting wine sales, concealed weapons permits take effect today
The "Merlot to go" law allows patrons who crack open a bottle of wine at a restaurant or winery to take the unfinished bottle home. But current Gainesville regulations still prohibit the practice. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

More than 100 new laws took effect in Georgia at the stroke of midnight. However, there are administrative hurdles to be cleared for one law and a needed change of Gainesville ordinance for another.

A law allowing customers to order wine by Internet or phone from wineries is among the new statutes that begin today. But the Georgia Department of Revenue, which regulates alcohol sales in the state, did not post the permitting requirements until mid-June, and none of the Northeast Georgia wineries contacted by The Times have received the needed permits.

Charles Willey, a spokesman for the revenue department, said the special order shipping license is available to wine producers for $50.

Doug Paul of Three Sisters Vineyards in Lumpkin County is not troubled by the delay and welcomes the opportunity to increase his market.

"This is great news for the citizens of Georgia," Paul said. "This is about giving them additional freedom and not much about wineries."

Paul said his various vintages will continue to be available through retailers, as well. He said he plans to offer ordering via the Internet as soon as he can legally do so.

Another provision that helps wineries allows them to sell beer, in addition to their wines, in tasting rooms.

The so-called "merlot to go" bill, which would let restaurant patrons carry out an unconsumed portion of a bottle of wine, became law today but faces several snags.

Willey said the regulatory guidelines have not been issued by the revenue department.

"This law is to protect the dining customer," Willey said.

Under previous law, driving away with a bottle of wine that had been opened would violate open container laws.

Willey predicted there would be some kind of packaging requirements that would show the bottle had been re-corked.

"This law is not a way to turn a restaurant into a package store," Willey said.

While the idea is exciting to restaurant owner Scott Dixon, Gainesville government says no.

Under city ordinance, restaurants like Dixon’s have licenses for "on-premise consumption" only.

Dixon, owner of "Scott’s on the Square," has a wine bar that features more than 70 varieties of wine, which can be purchased by the glass or the bottle.

"Wine can be an important part of the dining experience," said Dixon, who opened his restaurant on the square six months ago.

Another alcohol-related ordinance will allow limousine companies to apply for a special license to serve alcohol to their passengers.


Another law that goes into effect today obligates public employers, contractors and subcontractors with 100 employees or more to verify the immigration status of new hires through the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system. Gainesville says it has been in compliance with the law for a year now.

Noncompliance with the law could hurt local governments when they apply for grants and other federal money, but Gainesville’s director of human resources said compliance does not cost the city anything but time.

The E-Verify system verifies an applicant’s Social Security number with the Social Security Administration and the applicant’s Green Card, telling employers if the applicant is legal to work in the United States within 48 hours.

Joan Sheffield, director of Gainesville’s Human Resources Department, said the city started checking its new employees with E-Verify last July when the city knew the law was imminent, and at least four applicants have been turned down for jobs due to the checks.

Since then, Sheffield said she has noticed that the number of walk-in applicants — particularly minorities — has dropped significantly.

"We just don’t have the walk-in traffic that we once did," Sheffield said. "I don’t know if this can be fully attributable to the new rulings or not, but it’s been very visible."

To comply with the law, the city now requires all its contractors to sign an affidavit that all of their employees working on city property are of legal employment status.

"We don’t E-Verify (the contractors’ employees) ... but (the contractors) sign an affidavit that they’re compliant, and we take that at face value," Sheffield said.

If a contractor is found to have illegal immigrants working on city property, Sheffield said the signed affidavit means the contractor would face punishment instead of the city.

Other laws that target illegal immigrants require jailers to check the nationality and legal status of anyone jailed for driving without a license, but Hall County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Jeff Strickland said that since it implemented 287(g), the sheriff’s office checks the immigration status of everyone booked in the Hall County Jail.


Today is also the first day in which licensed gun owners can legally carry concealed guns on public transportation, into alcohol-serving restaurants and into state parks.

Critics and supporters alike say it’s the largest expansion of gun rights in Georgia in recent years. The measure passed in the final hours of this year’s rancorous legislative session, stunning some in the business community.

Critics say it could increase gun violence in the state. But supporters maintain the law only applies to permitted gun owners who have undergone a criminal background check. There are roughly 300,000 such permit holders in Georgia.

Janice Crow, director of Hall Area Transit, said her agency is working on putting together training and informing riders about their fellow passengers’ new right to carry a concealed gun on the Red Rabbit.

Crow said she hopes to get city and county officials’ approval to let bus drivers call 911 if a passenger shows a gun. When police come, they would check to make sure the passenger has a legitimate permit to carry the weapon.

She also plans to ask for city and county officials’ blessing to post signs in the buses that notify passengers of the new law.

"I think everyone is wanting to believe in the best, that this will move forward without incident," Crow said. "It’s the law of the land and it’s legal."

But she did not ask city and county officials to allow bus drivers to carry weapons themselves.

"I don’t see any need for that," Crow said. "Basically, as long as there’s no problems, there’s no problems."

Strickland said the law will not affect the way deputies train, but it may change their encounters with the public.

"It is possible that our officers could come in contact (with people carrying guns) more frequently than in the past," he said.


From now on, anyone caught driving under the influence for the fourth time in 10 years will be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor. First and second DUI convictions will result in a misdemeanor charge, while the third conviction is treated as a high and aggravated misdemeanor.

Previously, repeat DUI charges were limited to a five-year-period, but now they will be counted for up to 10 years.

The new law also requires first-time DUI offenders to undergo drug and alcohol evaluations, and in some cases, participate in court-supervised substance-abuse treatment.

Advocates of stronger DUI laws praised the penalties in a news release from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

"Until HB 336 was passed, even four-time shoplifting offenders were treated as felons under Georgia law, but a fourth-time DUI was still just a misdemeanor here," said Denise Thames, MADD-Georgia state executive director. "Georgia was one of only five states left with no DUI felony law. Now we have serious consequences for those repeat offenders. A third-time DUI offender needs a tough message and it should include more than just a few days of jail time."

There is also a new law that calls for a minimum of a two-day jail sentence for anyone caught driving without a license. Those caught driving without a license more than four times in five years will be charged with a felony.

Other criminal laws keep convicted sex offenders from volunteering at churches or taking photographs of minors without parental consent, and raise the penalty for selling or possessing fake identification cards.

Hall’s sheriff’s office will be ready to deal with anyone violating the new laws, Strickland said.

"Every year after the laws are enacted we do in-house training to update officers on updates and revisions to code sections," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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