Liquor laws create some of the most sensitive, emotional arenas for discussion in Utah politics.

So talk has been hushed about a party held in August at the home of a Park City restaurant official.A Summit County judge last week slapped the wrists of three wine brokers charged with illegally delivering alcoholic products to the party, where the brokers apparently were peddling their wine wares outside the bounds of Utah law.

The judge's action has some - even Rep. Bill Hickman, the lone advocate on Capitol Hill for more moderate liquor laws in Utah - steaming.

"That's not severe enough," Hickman, a Republican lawmaker from St. George, said of Judge Lynn H. Sadler's ruling in Summit County Justice Court.The case may illustrate an ironic leniency on some kinds of alcohol violations in what most would assume to be a climate of low tolerance in conservative, anti-alcohol Utah.

"If they broke the law . . . they should lose their license to represent companies that make alcoholic products," Hickman said. "It's that severe. We need to make sure the people who are in these positions do not cross the line."

At a party held late last summer, three brokers apparently did.

Liquor law enforcement officers, tipped off to the party, saw three people they recognized as wine brokers carrying boxes and sacks into the Park City house in violation of state liquor laws, said Lt. A.C. "Andy" Anderson, head of liquor and vice enforcement for the Department of Public Safety.

It is illegal for liquor sales representatives to provide samples to local restaurants and bars.

The three left empty-handed. Officers found "a substantial amount of wine" when they served a search warrant during a similar gathering at the same house the next night, Anderson said.

Summit County prosecutors later charged Geoffrey Andrews, 47, and Patrick Delaney, 42, both of Salt Lake City, and David Engen, 36, of Park City, with unlawfully giving away alcoholic products and unlawfully furnishing alcoholic products to a retailer.

Last Thursday, all three pleaded "no contest" to the first charge, according to court documents. In exchange for the "no contest" pleas, the court agreed to dismiss both charges after one year if the men do not violate more liquor laws.

Delaney called the charges "annoying" and said the state should not try to control a buyer-seller relationship the way it does with sampling laws.

"The current laws preclude us from doing one of the most important parts of our jobs, which is servicing restaurants, hotels and resorts," he said. "The current laws do not address the needs of the market."

The violations fall under state liquor law that addresses "sampling." This is the practice by sales-people of giving samples to customers or clients in an effort to persuade them to buy those products.

In Utah, this part of the law is heavy with history, egregious violation and intrigue.

Andrews, Delaney and Engen are three of 24 wine brokers registered with the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In Utah, wine brokers represent wineries that supply products to the state-run alcohol system. The brokers present their wines to the DABC and help state officials decide what wines to carry in state wine and liquor stores. They meet with restaurants and retailers to provide information about new products.

Everyone needs to try a shoe on before he buys it, said Engen. The brokers are the only voice of the restaurants.

"If politicians and churches feel they have to decide what the restaurants will be allowed to do . . . it's a slap in the face to restaurants."

In many other states, as in California where Engen worked last, sampling is a big part of the wine business.

In Utah, some businesses have tried through the years to incorporate the practice.

A sampling scandal was front-page news on and off throught the late 1970s, when samples from the alcoholic beverages industry led to the indictment of two then full-time Alcoholic Beverage Control commissioners.

At the time, wineries were sending "samples galore into the state," said Earl Dorius, head of the department's licensing and compliance.

There were allegations of liquor gifts tucked into the trunks of commissioners' cars, liquor given to barbers and other accusations of bribery and buy-offs.

There was an investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office, an investigation by the county attorney's office, an investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Citizens Council on Alcoholic Beverages.

"There were never any convictions, but it led to some major legislation," Dorius said.

"It was a major scandal. As a result, the Legislature really tightened down on samples in the market and samples to the department. Because of that, our laws are extremely tight."

So while a salesman can go to a Smith's Food King and deliver bottles of his Heinz or Del Monte ketchup brands, a representative of Mondavi, Meridian or Ponzi wineries cannot.

"This is liquor," Dorius said. "With liquor, it's a different situation than ketchup."

All sampling must be done under state supervision. A bill sponsored by Hickman during the 1998 Legislature would have relaxed the sampling law, but it got thumbs down from his colleague lawmakers.

An amended version allows restaurant managers and owners to go to the DABC offices on 900 West and taste-test wines. Restaurant representatives have said that's not a convenient way to do business.

But the laws will never be relaxed as long as situations like the one in Park City occur, Hickman said. "What we're trying to do is make the rules . . . very clear and very specific and very accommodating," Hickman said.

"But it creates suspicion in Utah when you have a few mavericks who won't obey the law."

Dorius would not discuss the Park City incident or the case. The last case involving brokers improperly working the market with retailers occurred in the early 1990s, he said.

Dorius and his DABC colleagues - who are not law enforcers - must evaluate court and police information and apply it to a set of department rules to decide whether the brokers should keep their licenses or get them suspended or revoked.

Violations are catalogued as grave, serious, moderate or minor, and each category has its own range of penalties.

As with similar action by any state licensing department, the brokers will be notified of the complaint and given a formal chance to explain their side of the story.

Dorius says he's not sure when the department will rule on the cases.

"In some cases, if a conviction has occurred, that is grounds to suspend or revoke (a license). The commission has not yet addressed what happens when you have a plea."