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As John Govin shows his Menomonie barn to couples looking for a wedding venue, he keeps hearing the same question: Are we going to be able to have alcohol?

For the first time, Govin — who opened The Weddin’ Barn, an agriculture event space, in 2013 — isn't sure of the answer.

Historically, event venues like barns that are used for weddings have not operated under the same liquor laws as taverns and banquet halls. Now, that practice has been called into question.

Earlier this week, outgoing Attorney General Brad Schimel suggested in a legal analysis that barns rented for events are subject to the state’s liquor laws. His analysis came at the request of Rep. Rob Swearingen, a Republican from Rhinelander.

On Wednesday, a state legislative committee tasked with examining the state's alcohol laws echoed Schimel, saying it interprets current laws to require venues like barns to obtain licenses to serve alcohol.

It's worth noting that earlier this year, a bill to extend hours for wineries included a provision requiring wedding barns to have liquor licenses. The bill did not pass. However, the thrust of Wednesday's committee discussion was that such new legislation actually isn't needed; the requirement exists in current law and should be enforced immediately.

It's also worth noting that Swearingen chairs the legislative committee. He is a former president of the Tavern League and the owner of a supper club — exactly the kind of business that would see wedding barns as competition, and unlicensed wedding barns serving alcohol as unfair competition.

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The discussion in Madison is casting doubt on events planned at any unlicensed wedding barn.

It's also throwing into disarray a niche business that has surged in recent years.

Nationally, 15 percent of American couples held their wedding reception at a barn or farm, up from just 2 percent in 2009, according to The Knot's annual wedding survey. The number choosing to hold their reception in a banquet hall dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent in that time frame. 

In Wisconsin, that has meant a much-needed second income for some farmers, and in some cases investment from outsiders who update and convert the barns. Dozens of barns across the state offer their venue for couples.

Steve Nagy has hosted more than 1,500 weddings in Appleton without a liquor license since he started renting out his barn nearly four decades ago at Homestead Meadow Farms. He has contracts for multiple weddings for next year signed that say the private parties can have alcohol.

“If we had to backpedal that would be an ugly scenario,” Nagy said. “I don’t know how that would work.”

Some barn owners are in the clear.

Tim Otterstatter already has a liquor license. Otterstatter paid $600 for one when he opened The Hay Loft in Watertown three years ago. He wanted to be sure he was fully compliant with all laws before opening and to him that already required a liquor license. “It’s a private party, but you’re still renting a public place,” he said.

When Rustic Manor 1848 opened in 2015, its owners also obtained a liquor license, because they assumed the City of Delafield would have recommended getting one. 

But municipalities across the state have made varying decisions on whether event barns should be required to hold licenses.

Anita Bennett has already looked into what to do about ensuring she can have alcohol at the weddings she’s booked at her Watertown barn. Bennett said she would get a license that would allow her just to offer beer and wine — all the allowable licenses that include liquor and spirits are already issued.

If the new interpretation is enforced, Govin isn’t sure what he would do with his venue in Menomonie. The couples Govin is meeting with now are for weddings in 2020. He’s done booking for 2019. 

He could seek a liquor license, but it’s not guaranteed. The town chairman in Menomonie where The Weddin’ Barn is located told Govin not to ask for a liquor license when the event space opened, he said. If he did spend the money to get the license, Govin said, he would need to fundamentally change his business to recoup the cost.

Liquor licenses in Wisconsin range from $15 for a provisional retail license to $30,000 for businesses in newly developed historical or downtown districts appraised at $20 million.

“It would put us out of business,” Govin said. “It would be an example of the government regulating a business out of business.”

Govin and Nagy are a part of Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association’s eight-member agricultural event venue committee. The group has been sending letters and making phone calls to state legislators with the hope of keeping the rules they way they are — or at least the enforcement the way it has been.

But on his farm as he leads couples planning weddings years away, he can’t give an answer about whether they’ll be able to toast their special day with champagne.

“I don’t think this will go away,” Govin said. “I don’t think the threat will go away. It will rear its ugly head again in the future.”

Are you planning a barn wedding in Wisconsin? We want to hear from you about the license ruling. Contact reporter Sarah Hauer at shauer@journalsentinel.com or 414-224-2562.

Sarah Hauer can be reached at shauer@journalsentinel.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter Be MKE at jsonline.com/bemke

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