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Brett Clifford, the man credited with building Utah's premium wine program into a national success story, submitted a scathing resignation letter last Friday, accusing the new Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (DABC) leaders of demoralizing staff and threatening to slash programs that would harm business and tourism in the state.

Clifford, 62, who had been the state wine coordinator for 37 years, specifically called out Francine Giani and Tom Zdunich, executive director and acting deputy director, for an alleged plan to cut the number of top-quality wines sold in Utah.

Such a move could have a negative affect on business and tourism in the state, Clifford wrote, in a two-page letter submitted to Giani on Feb. 3.

The most significant problem was "the intended downgrading of the DABC's fine wine program, something I have spent my entire career developing," said Clifford, who also sent a copy of his resignation letter to The Salt Lake Tribune.

In the letter, Clifford claims that Zdunich informed him several months ago that "the number of premium wines under my control would be reduced by two-thirds. ... Tom is determined to cut selection and move Utah stores toward a grocery-store model."

Such a move could reduce access in an alcohol-monopoly state such as Utah. "Unless consumers and licensees are offered legal alternative choices of supply [such as winery-direct or Internet sales] our state's business and image will suffer," wrote Clifford, who had originally retired in December 2005, and was re-hired in June 2006. "Utah's world class resorts, barely able to compete in their beverage programs under current laws, will lose a critical component for business growth."

On Monday, Giani labeled Clifford "a disgruntled employee" and said there had been no move by the DABC to cut the number of wines available in the state.

"I am committed to making sure that the state's fine wine selection is as robust as it ever has been," she said. "We want to have a good variety. We are known for that and will continue to be known for that. There has been no edict from the top down to shut it down."

For months, wine brokers and restaurateurs have been talking behind the scenes about a potential cut in premium wines. The rumors may have come from one of the recent state audits that suggested the DABC operate more like a business. It was suggested that the liquor stores carry only those products — called SKUs — that sell, and get rid of those that don't.

Giani said one of the reports "asked us to reduce the SKUs on the shelves, but we are not doing that."

Giani was appointed DABC director last summer, after the previous director was forced out over allegations that he had steered tens of thousands of dollars worth of state contracts to his son's business and split invoices to avoid competitive contracts. The DABC also has been in the spotlight for closing stores and for controversy sparked after it was determined that some of the package agencies it oversees had failed to pay thousands of dollars in bills.

In his letter, Clifford claimed that since Giani arrived at the DABC there have been "secret interrogations, closed meetings, forced retirements, layoff and firings" that have left staff demoralized.

Those allegations "are patently false," said Giani, who also is the state's director of the Department of Commerce. She makes no apologies for the personnel changes that have occurred during her tenure.

"Have they been difficult? Yes," she said. "But unfortunately, the legislative and state audits suggest that cleaning needed to be done and that was my role. "Bottom line, we took a look at those audits and thought they meant something. We have corrected some things and we are still correcting."

Francis Fecteau, owner of Libations Inc., a Utah wine broker, had heard the rumors about inventory reductions. Such moves would hurt his business, but he said it would be "a tragedy" to dismantle the wine program that Clifford had built.

"It would really have a chilling effect if the fine wine system is compromised in any way," he said, noting that part of the reason Utah has such as booming travel industry is because restaurants and hotels are able to get top-quality inventory for patrons.

"Utah really has an extra-ordinary wine program that has great depth and breadth of selection," he said. "It's a jewel, but no one is aware of it because the DABC never promotes it."

Twitter: @kathystephenson