Enophiles in Northern Virginia will likely have a lot more wine dinners to add to their calendars in the coming months, after the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that explicitly allows restaurants to hold the events with wine distributors.
The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control started cracking down on the dinners in 2013, using the logic that the ABC law prohibited wine wholesalers and distributors from providing anything of value to retailers that sell alcohol — in the case of wine dinners, that thing of value was information about the wine they were drinking.
Restaurants subsequently cancelled wine dinners they had planned to put on with wholesalers, who often sell a significant amount of wine to customers at those dinners.
But a bill signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on March 31 specifies that wholesalers providing information to customers of retail establishments is not prohibited.
“Nothing in this title or any Board regulation adopted pursuant thereto shall prohibit … Any winery, farm winery, wine importer, or wine wholesaler licensee from providing to adult customers of licensed retail establishments information about wine being consumed on such premises,” the bill, S.B. 337, reads.
The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who took up the matter, along with several other senators, after restaurants complained that the wine dinner prohibition was hurting their businesses.
“It will remove a hassle from restaurants that are just trying to pair food with wine and have people who are wine aficionados enjoy the expertise of those who know wine best,” Ebbin said.
The new law could also provide some leeway on wine tastings, which were also a casualty of the wholesaler crackdown. Many wholesalers stopped doing wine tastings for their clients altogether after ABC notified licensees that providing information to retail customers was prohibited.
Although wholesalers are prohibited from doing wine tastings in some wine shops that sell wine for off-premise consumption, the new language does not reference specific kinds of events at which wholesalers can provide information.
“That privilege is not tied to any particular event,” noted Walter Marston, general counsel for the Virginia Wine Wholesalers Association. “It could be a seminar, it could be no event … it doesn’t mention tastings. It’s unrestricted.”