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BIG FOREST: The courtship of Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River. [PHOTO BY PAULA ROBERTS] Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River. [PHOTO BY PAULA ROBERTS]


PART 6: 'Do you, Sierra Nevada, take Mills River ...'

By the time his flight left California, McGrady knew that he might be called on to sponsor legislation enabling the brewery to sell beer from a visitor center. "There was sort of a sidebar conversation and within a relatively short period of time that issue was on the table," he said.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 13, the Partnership learned that the project would indeed require a legislative change. Tate began communicating with the state ABC chair and the agency's attorney to understand how North Carolina law would restrict the business.
Tom ApodacaTom Apodaca"Within 24 hours of that, Sen. (Tom) Apodaca and the folks he worked with were very very involved in that process," Tate said. "I think we probably spent a week to two weeks just getting a handle on where the problems were and how they were going to get fixed. We also learned that people cared significantly throughout the state about even minor changes to alcohol law. Distribution was a highly protected entity or concern. So we had to be really really careful in terms of what change would allow them to operate here but not create 800 other issues."
Apodaca would be key.
As the Rules chairman, Apodaca, a jocular one-time bail bondsman, held the second most powerful post in the state Senate. He had the power to shepherd the bill through the tight constraints of a special session. But he had not become the most influential state legislator from Hendersonville in more than a generation by making reckless use of his power.
Everybody who was in the room remembered the moment when the Henderson County team suddenly became less than deferential to the man who was ready to write a $100 million check. Sitting across from Grossman, Apodaca posed the question.
"It seems like we've been courting and dating," the senator said. "If we're going to start changing state law, we need to get engaged and get married."
Although Apodaca had delivered the line in a light way, the meaning was clear.
"It got a smile out of everyone," McGrady said, "but it pretty much characterized where we needed to be."
The recruiters teetered on the edge of two emotional responses. They had spent weeks as sales reps, pushing this asset, making that commitment, orchestrating unprecedented cooperation among town, county and state regulators — and here was a state senator making a demand. Maybe Grossman would walk. But on the other hand they were relieved. Finally, someone had said it. Apodaca had uttered what everyone was thinking. He had pointed to an imaginary cathedral aisle flanked on either side by waiting faces and populated at the altar by a large wedding party and a priest, and posed the question: "Do you, Sierra Nevada, take this county ..."

Apodaca and McGrady went to work.

An offseason legislative session is generally a closely managed affair. The governor and legislative leaders get to say what's taken up. A legislator from the mountains, even a powerful one, can't just shoehorn an unrelated bill onto the agenda.
ChuckMcGradygrinChuck McGrady"There were not a lot of vehicles out there but there were a couple of bills that were eligible to move," McGrady said.
Called a train or a Christmas tree, a must-pass bill is the vehicle every legislator wants to ride. With Apodaca as the chief traffic cop for the flow of legislation in the Senate, there was no doubt that the Sierra Nevada changes would make it on board.
Rep. Edgar Starnes, a 15-year House veteran, Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher from Granite Falls, "had never voted for an alcohol bill," McGrady said. "But part of this was his bill." Starnes voted yes.
A General Assembly that is filled with conservative Bible-belt sensibilities on just about everything had pushed the bill through by a wide margin.
"We talked about stars aligning," McGrady said. "And at every point we all sort of pinched ourselves that the stars tended to align."
Three days after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 28, the bill passed. Perdue signed it 10 days later.
Apodaca said the legislative action boosted the state's position in the Grossmans' eyes.
"I think they were fascinated the General Assembly was able to turn that quickly," he said. "I understand that was instrumental."