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End is near for town's dry spell

Board OK's first alcohol licenses

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a July 22 article about Belmont's first retail alcohol licenses gave the correct address but incorrect neighbors for Vintages: Adventures in Wine. The wine shop, planned for 32 Leonard St., will be located between the restaurant Asai and Thirty Petals Boutique.

After 148 years without one, Belmont is getting its first liquor store.

The Board of Selectmen last week approved an all-alcohol license and a beer-and-wine-only license for two businesses scheduled to open in the fall.

But don't expect to see typical package stores -- peddling nips and lottery tickets, and pulling down metal security doors at the end of the day -- dotting the landscape anytime soon. The board awarded the first licenses to boutique shops with ties to Belmont and established regional reputations.

The licenses became available after voters approved a pair of ballot questions in April. Belmont residents previously voted to allow limited restaurant alcohol licenses in 1998, a measure officials touted as a way to enhance local dining options and bolster the commercial base. Selectmen pointed to the success of that policy in promoting the new effort to create store licenses.

On Monday, the board issued the all-alcohol license to Belmont native Elena Benoit and her husband, Chris, who operate The Spirited Gourmet in Winchester and will open a second store in Belmont's Cushing Square. The wine-and-malt license went to Eric Broege and Carolyn Kemp. The Belmont couple owns Vintages: Adventures in Wine in West Concord and will now open a store in downtown Belmont.

Selectman Angelo R. Firenze said the board considered the locations, the local ties, and the specialty nature of the businesses -- each existing shop attracts customers from a wide area with unusual selection and a focus on service -- in awarding the licenses.

"We weren't trying to just open another typical liquor store to make it more convenient for our residents if they want to buy a case of beer, so they don't have to drive to Cambridge or Waltham," said Firenze, the board's chairman. "We wanted it to be a destination-type shop where people say, 'Gee, I'm going to go to Belmont because they have the kind of store I'm looking for.' "

Elena Benoit initiated the process a year and a half ago when she approached the selectmen, who brought the retail issue to Town Meeting in 2006. Approval there and from state lawmakers allowed the town, which has never allowed liquor sales, to place two related questions on the April ballot; 53 percent approved the all-alcohol license and 58 percent approved the creation of two wine-and-beer licenses.

Firenze said he was surprised the margin wasn't larger, given the absence of organized opposition. "To me it was such a no-brainer," he said. "But many people are very traditional and liked the fact that Belmont was a sleepy little town that you couldn't buy a bottle of beer in."

Four businesses applied for the all-alcohol license, and five applied for the wine-and-malt licenses, with some overlap. Officials liked all of the proposals and said they chose the Benoits on the merits, not because they had initiated the process.

"As someone said, we couldn't make the wrong choice," Selectman Paul Solomon said.

The Benoits, who live in Winchester, will open a 3,600-square-foot store -- about 50 percent larger than their existing business -- at 448 Common St., not far from Trapelo Road.

The store will be similar to the Winchester business: Tuscan decor, with a tasting bar where customers can sample wine, spirits, microbrews, and assorted foods. Benoit said she expects about 70 percent of the business to be wine, 10 percent to be liquor, and 20 percent to be food and gift baskets.

After awarding the all-alcohol license, selectmen chose the husband-wife duo of Broege and Kemp for a wine-and-beer license. They held the second wine-and-beer license for a later round, because some applicants withdrew and others sought locations near the businesses selected for the licenses.

Vintages will occupy a renovated space at 32 Leonard St., between Gregory's House of Pizza and Sovereign Bank. Like the West Concord Vintages, it will be roughly 1,000 square feet.

The Spirited Gourmet and Vintages have some similarities -- each offers roughly 800 wines, and the owners talk about introducing customers to bottles of "value," whether at $8 or $300 -- but Vintages focuses almost exclusively on wine. It has attracted customers from across New England for its selection and expertise in wine-and-food pairings; when Princess Caroline of Monaco visited Boston last year, Vintages picked the wines for a private dinner party, Kemp said.

Even some who opposed the end of Belmont's semidry status concede that the businesses may benefit the town.

Maryann Scali has consistently voted against allowing alcohol. She joined the town's Alcohol Beverage Licensing Committee to bring a cautionary voice to the process after the town adopted restaurant licenses.

Scali said she wanted to preserve Belmont's "quaintness," not keep people from drinking. "I was concerned about the way [liquor stores] would look and the way it was presented," she said. "I just didn't want the city coming into my town."

But Scali, a lifelong Belmont resident, has "come full circle." She said she appreciates the enthusiasm of the winning applicants and their focus on quality and customer education.

Outside the future Spirited Gourmet recently, passing residents said Belmont was ready for a liquor store. "It's not too far of a drive to get alcohol anywhere else. Why not have it here?" said Jason Georgitis, a lawyer.

Diane Johnson, another lifelong resident, was more emphatic. "Yeah! It's about time," said Johnson, a bartender in Cambridge.

She snickered a little at the notion that officials wanted to avoid a run-of-the-mill package store. "It's an image thing," she said. "It's totally Belmont."

Johnson thought the stores would have no trouble attracting wine-savvy locals who like to entertain. "Belmont people will dig that," she said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at