Big Bottles For The Holidays - The Highest Calling Of The Winemaker's Art

To kick off the holiday season this year, Hinman & Carmichael LLP celebrated the 30th annual Big Bottle Party on December 1st at the University Club in San Francisco, overlooking the City on a beautiful starlit night.

The purpose of the event was to honor the winemakers of California and throughout the world, whose large formats are generously offered as lots at wine industry charity auctions. These special wines are the highest calling of the winemaker’s art and we consider it our duty to share the large format lots we buy at the charity auctions with our friends and colleagues, and with the winemakers themselves; many of whom were in attendance.

This year a wonderful time was had by all, and the large formats – Jeroboams, Rehoboams, Imperials, Salmanzars, Balthazars, Nebuchanezzar and Melchoirs – were perfect for the evening. Those assembled enjoyed Champagne, Pinot Noir, Rose, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, Viognier and many blends, as well as the great food available from the University Club.

The large format wines that were served were all sourced from wine industry charitable auctions (including Sonoma County Vintners, ZAP, Rhone Rangers, Lodi Vintners, Reggae and Rhone, Winesong as well as other events). We urge everyone who has Big Bottles in their cellars to share them generously with their friends and family this holiday season.  Ask the winemakers – that’s why they made the wines!

Please enjoy the video from the H&C 30th Annual Big Bottle Party.  

Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Hinman & Carmichael LLP

FINAL COMMENTS TO TTB NOTICE 160 DUE ON WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 7TH – WE ARE ASKING THE TTB TO EXTEND THE COMMENT PERIOD AGAIN TO ALLOW FOR INDUSTRY NEGOTIATION AND ALIGNMENT OF INTERESTS

As the TTB’s 90-day extension to submit comments on the proposed rule changes governing the use of label exemptions for wine sold intra-state comes to a close, there is only one thing that has been settled.  TTB Notice 160 is very controversial.

The original proposal responded to the concerns of wineries in various AVA regions that when grapes from those regions are being sold to wineries outside of the state the resulting wine could then be labeled under the current “in-state sale only” exemption with AVA identifying information; contrary to non-exempt federal AVA labeling requirements mandating that the wine bearing an AVA be produced almost entirely within the AVA. 

The bottom line is that under Notice 160, the exemption would be no longer available and the out of state wineries that buy the grapes from AVA areas would not be permitted to identify on their labels where the wine grapes used in their wine came from.  This would both depress the price and desirability of wine grapes sourced from growers in areas that carry an AVA designation, and result in non-California wineries using out of state grapes from AVA designated areas being unable to tell consumers where their grapes originated.

We extensively summarized the various points of view in our August 15, 2016 blog post before the last extension of the TTB comment period.  The current extension for comments period expires on December 7, 2016 and we are sending this blog to the TTB as a comment. 

What we are asking for is another extension to allow time for the industry to attempt to arrive at a negotiated consensus.  If you agree with us, please copy the blog and email it to the TTB as an endorsed comment.  Here is the Notice as published in the Federal Register with filing instructions.

The purpose in asking for another extension is to permit the different affected participants (wineries and growers) time to arrive at a compromise that both permits the sale of the fruit, and satisfies the consumers right to know where the grapes in their wine came from. Without a compromise one possible outcome is First Amendment litigation that could undermine the entire AVA system.  Another outcome could be widespread scoffing at the AVA system through moving the identifying information that should be on the label on-line.

Is a compromise possible?  The Napa Valley Vintners have been circulating a white paper laying out a possible compromise through a mechanism they called “Grape Source Information” on the back label of a wine. The grape source information could not use the AVA of the area from which the grapes emanated but could use the address of the vineyard from which the fruit came. It is yet to be seen whether or not NVV will file this proposal with the TTB, as their first comment filed in August simply calls for the proposed changes to be approved.  Regardless, this is a very promising approach. However, in its current form (with identification limited to counties) it doesn’t completely accomplish the goal because (among other address related identification issues) viticultural areas (such as Lodi) are often located in different counties or in counties that are not that well known to consumers. 

However it is a framework for compromise and, as such, we believe that the discussions should be continued.

We urge the TTB to keep the comment period open for at least another 90 days.

SONOMA COUNTY WINERY USE PERMITS, EVENT RESTICTIONS AND DTC

BOOZE RULES GUEST BLOG

There have been hundreds of articles and reports in recent months detailing winery marketing event restrictions in Napa, Sonoma and throughout California.  Local authorities from Santa Barbara to Napa to Sonoma have been grappling with the winery and hospitality business need to market their wines to visiting customers against the desire of local residents (many of them new to the wine country) to experience a quiet agricultural countryside. This conflict is not going away and is reflected in applications for new wineries being protested and in applications for use and event permits for existing wineries being denied.  The DTC model is essential to the survival of the small to medium size winery, and entertaining visitors is essential to the DTC model. We and our colleagues at Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross, LLP, (a law firm on the ground in Sonoma County) are tracking Sonoma developments as they occur so that our winery clients and friends can input in the process. Kim Corcoran, an experienced wine business and litigation attorney at CMPR, attends the County Board of Supervisors meetings on these issues.  This is her report.


Latest Developments on Winery Use Permits and Visitor Restrictions

Kim Corcoran, Attorney

Sonoma County wineries have been under attack in the last few years by groups in opposition to winery events, new wineries, and even the direct-to-consumer business model itself.  The vast majority of Sonoma County wineries are good neighbors and work to ensure that their impacts on nearby residents are lessened.  Most of the neighbors understand that they are living on land zoned for agriculture (which includes wineries), but opposition groups are advocating for more residential-oriented rights on ag land.  The wineries have pushed back, stating that without a high value crop such as wine, the land is worth more for housing tracts than it is for agriculture.  To help bring the parties to some resolution, the Board of Supervisors convened a Winery Working Group panel.  After many months of meetings, however the animosity seemed to grow stronger.  The issues were placed back in the hands of the Board of Supervisors.  

Meeting 10/11/16, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors agreed this week to move forward with zoning code amendments to facilitate clarity for the wine business in the County.  The Board adopted a limited resolution asking County staff to develop specific code amendments as well as standards and siting criteria for areas of local concentration to be adopted either as guidelines or code amendments.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this week’s action is that it was on the Board’s “consent” calendar.  This means that there was none of the public comment (read “rancor and discord”) that has attended other public hearings on this subject.  Of course, it takes a lot of work on everyone’s part to get an “easy” result - hats off to all for getting to this point.

Indeed, it is a sign of the times that direction from the Board simply to craft some code amendments is seen as a major milestone.  Opposition groups have pushed hard for an immediate moratorium on any new winery use permits and for an immediate determination of (and prohibitions within) “areas of over-concentration.”  Leaving aside the redundancy of their term, anyone with knowledge of the areas in issue knows that it will not be easy to define areas of the County that may fall into such a category.  Moreover, opposition groups appear to seek County regulation for the express purpose of interfering with the direct-to-consumer marketing model that has made Sonoma County wineries vibrant and prosperous. 

Each of the Supervisors expressed their appreciation for a more deliberative process, one Supervisor referring to the process as “deliberative by design.”  Another Supervisor, with nods of approval from others, reminded the audience that direct-to-consumer sales is an old business model from the time before grapes were even a major crop.  Such a sales model can greatly assist in keeping much of the County’s current land in agriculture. 

The winery supporters have been advocating for the adoption of clear definitions and this week the Supervisors instructed County staff to develop such definitions.   Under the current ordinances, the County is asked to regulate winery “special events” when there is no definition for the term.  The wineries are seeking definitions for “events” and “activities.”  An activity is a normal business activity within the winery’s usual, site-specific capacity (such as a special tasting, a distributor meeting or a winemaker lunch) that would not be counted as a “special event.”  Under the wineries’ proposed set of definitions, new wineries would be limited in the number and scope of special events, but not activities. 

Several of the Supervisors discussed the need for additional enforcement mechanisms with one of them specifically complimenting the wine industry for their proposals in this regard.  The wineries have proposed outside funding for a position that would be available on nights and weekends to assist neighbors and wineries alike, and to coordinate larger winery events with other neighborhood pressures such as marathons and bicycle races. 

While we will need to wait for County’s staff’s recommendation on each of the issues before we’ll know what’s in front of us, the meeting this week was a step forward in that process. 

Please do not hesitate to contact Kim Corcoran at kcorcoran@cmprlaw.com or (707) 526-4200 if you have questions or concerns regarding this article.

New TTB Labeling Requirement Regulations: Out-of-State Bottling Is Not Created Equal and Consumers Right to Know Where the Grapes in their Wine Come from is Compromised

By: Jeremy Siegel and John Hinman

We are going to unpack the impact of the TTB’s proposed rule changes concerning the current exemption available from the normal labeling requirements for wine sold solely in-state made from grapes or wine that are brought in from other states.

The current exemption permits winemakers to include information on in-state labels that they would ordinarily be foreclosed from including on national labels, such as: appellation of origin, varietal and vintage year.  Strict compliance with AVA regulations is being cited by certain vintners who believe it is necessary to eviscerate the in-state exemption in order to protect their valuable AVA’s. This has the consequence of preventing small wineries in remote states from providing their consumers with truthful and accurate information about the wine they are drinking locally.

Regardless of the position of the reader on these issues, we encourage all members of the industry to submit comments to the TTB before the August 22, 2016 deadline.  This is an important debate and worthy of attention.

The TTB Proposed Notice of Rulemaking

There has been a lot of confusion and much spilled ink about this topic since the TTB’s announcement on June 21 that, due to “concerns raised by wine industry members and members of Congress regarding the accuracy of label information” (read the press release here) the TTB is proposing a rule change that places restrictions on what information will be permitted to appear on the labels for these wines.

Winemakers NOT affected

Please note that winemakers who currently apply for certificates of label of approval (“COLAs”) for wines using grapes from the same state where they make their wine will not be impacted by these changes, and they can all stop reading here if they like.  For the rest of the wine industry that does rely on the exemption from label approval process, or cares about the exemption maybe because they are a small winery in a remote state, read on. 

Winemakers who ARE affected

The proposed changes will severely limit the usefulness of the exemption from the normal label approval process for winemakers and bottlers who only sell their wines in-state. 

The current beneficiaries of this exemption fall in to two camps: (1) those who want to include information about the source of the grapes, and the varietal and vintage of their wine but ordinarily may not because the wine is not made in the same or adjacent state as where the grapes are grown, and (2) those who are not concerned with identifying the source of the grapes or wine they purchase from out of state but do want to inform their consumers of the varietal and vintage of the wine they are selling. 

If the proposed changes are adopted, the ability of both of these types of winemakers/bottlers to effectively market their products will be severely hampered, and consumers will be forced to make wine purchasing decisions for locally produced wines without access to such important information as where the grapes came from, the type of grapes used to make the wine, and the year the grapes were harvested. 

The Current Labeling Regulations

Under the current regulations, a wine producer may apply for and receive an exemption from the standard labeling requirements if their wine will NOT enter interstate commerce. See 27 CFR § 4.50(b).  Ordinarily, prior to a wine that is more than 7% alcohol by volume being labeled and sold, the winemaker must apply for a COLA from the TTB if it wants to list on the label, among other things, the grape varietal (§4.23), the appellation of origin (§4.25), the vintage (§4.27) and the type designation of varietal significance (§4.28).  Each of these labeling attributes has specific requirements that must be met before the TTB will issue the COLA.  For example, in order for a wine label to list an appellation of origin, “[a]t least 75 percent of the wine [must be] derived from fruit … grown in the appellation area indicated, [the wine] must be fully finished … if labeled with a State appellation, within the State or an adjacent state; or if labeled with a county appellation, within the State in which the labeled county is located; and it [must conform] with the laws and regulations of the named appellation area governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines made in such place.” 

In order to include grape varietal, vintage and/or designation of varietal significance, the label must ALSO include an accurate appellation of origin, meaning appellation of origin is really the baseline labeling requirement.

The Hole (some consider it a hole anyway) in the Regulations that the Proposed Rule Change would close – Use of the Technique of selling the wine only within the state in which the winery exists

Currently, if the bottler or winemaker of a given wine can show to the TTB’s satisfaction “that the wine to be bottled or packed is not to be sold, offered for sale, or shipped or delivered for shipment, or otherwise introduced in interstate or foreign commerce” then the bottler/winemaker can apply to be exempt from the above listed requirements, and may include information on the wine label that would not normally conform with the baseline appellation requirements for information.  This is very useful for the small winery with limited access to good fruit from its own vineyard because of bad weather, bad crop years or other causes that routinely plague small wineries in remote states outside of the major grape growing states.

For example, in the ordinary course, if a winemaker in New York purchases and ships pinot noir grapes from a vineyard in Sonoma County to make and bottle the wine in New York, the wine could not be labeled as Sonoma County Pinot Noir, nor could it be labeled as New York Pinot Noir.  This is because, while the wine was derived from grapes grown in Sonoma County, it was finished in New York, so the wine ends up somewhat of a TTB pariah that neither state can claim as its own. The wine was not “fully finished” in Sonoma County but rather in New York.  If this winemaker wishes to label the wine as Sonoma County Pinot Noir, however; he or she can apply for an exemption from the COLA requirements so long as the wine was sold solely in New York and is labeled “For Sale in New York Only.”  This exemption process permits the winemaker to indicate the provenance of the wine made even though it does not meet the strict federal labeling requirements of 27 CFR §4.25.  A prime example of a winery that would be impacted by these rule changes is Brooklyn Winery, which makes well-received Cabernet Sauvignons from grapes sourced from the Napa Valley. 

Labeling with the current exemption, and without the current exemption

Without the exemption: Currently, a winemaker or bottler that doesn’t want to apply for the intrastate exemption from the requirement that the appellation of origin be listed, while still listing grape varietal and vintage, may use the national appellation.  For example, if the New York winemaker above doesn’t feel that it is important to disclose that he or she is using California grapes or wine, but still wants to include the grape varietal and vintage, without an exemption, the label would have to indicate at a minimum that the wine was an “American” Pinot Noir, 2016 vintage, which is the most general appellation of origin allowed. 

With the exemption: However, with an exemption, the label for this wine could include the varietal and vintage, and a descriptive name such as “Big Apple Winery” without any actual appellation of origin. The concern here is that this type of labeling could lead consumers to believe that the wine was in fact made in New York from New York grapes.  This type of exemption is widely used in Texas by wine bottlers who purchase wine in bulk from California (where fully 85% of wine is produced in the United States) and bottle it in Texas “for sale in Texas only” and call it something like “Lone Star Winery 2016 Pinot Noir” without an appellation of origin. Again,the concern here is that this type of labeling may mislead consumers into believing that it is a Texan wine.    

Grape Sourcing Safe Harbor Not Affected by the Proposed Rule Change

It is worth reiterating that wineries that must source grapes from out of state because of weather, grape availability or other reasons may still label their wines as “American” and include the varietal and vintage date under regular COLA regulations.  So, a wine made in New York with pinot grapes from Sonoma in 2016 could be labeled as “American Pinot Noir, 2016 vintage” without applying for an exemption. 

Why is the Change Being Proposed?

The intended effect of this proposed change is to limit the ability of out-of-state winemakers with grapes or wine from a state like California to reap any of the identification benefits of using grapes from California and other well-known appellations.  This is an extension of the successful legislative efforts by California winemakers in Napa, Sonoma and other AVA areas that heavily market their AVAs to protect their geographical appellation rights.  For example, California state law (the “conjunctive labeling” laws found at B&P §§ 25241 and 25242) currently mandates that wineries located outside of specific AVAs may not use certain geographical terms on their labels unless all steps of the winemaking process take place within the specific AVA. 

These regulations were put in place to protect the concept that “for more than a century certain California counties have been widely recognized for producing grapes and wine of the highest quality” and to ensure that consumers are not “confused or deceived” by these geographical terms appearing on labels of wines that were not produced completely within the confines of the AVA.  Because California state law does not apply beyond California borders, the conjunctive labeling laws are not binding on winemakers in other states.  This is one of the problems that the TTB Rule change appears to be intended to address.

The Current exemption as a work-around

The current exemption process provides an in-state work-around for winemakers that purchase grapes from remote AVAs to indicate the source of their grapes and to provide consumers with accurate information about what is actually  in their wine, no matter where the grapes were actually grown or ultimately fermented into wine. The proposed rules will completely eliminate this exemption.

This change has the additional effect of preventing winemakers and bottlers who are not concerned with disclosing the source of the grapes they use to make wine from still being able to call out the varietal and vintage except through the identification of the wine as “American.”

Consumer and Winery Concerns

One major concern is that both camps of winemakers and bottlers (typically small wineries) could soon be faced with holding significant inventories of wine that, because they lack the type of information on their labels that consumers rely to make their purchases, will be worth much less money and will be difficult or impossible to sell even within their local market area.   Consumers, for their part, generally have the right to know basic information about what it is that they are consuming, and where it comes from.  This Rule change affects those rights.

Alternatives for comment – there is no middle ground

We encourage all involved in the current system of wine production to make their views known to the TTB right away.  While we are proponents of truth in labeling and full disclosure, we also understand the importance of protecting AVA rights. There are most definitely two sides here.

If this rule change is adopted there will be no middle ground for small wineries to disclose the source of out of state grapes used in their wine. Thus, maintaining the current exemption is one alterative that should be seriously considered.

The Potential First Amendment Impact of the Proposed Regulation

Another alternative if the proposed regulatory changes are adopted, which the TTB is aware of from its experience with the Cabo Distributing “Black Death” First Amendment case, would involve potential First Amendment litigation on behalf of small wineries in remote states asserting a winery right to inform consumers of truthful information under 27 CFR 4.38 (a) [“…In addition, information which is truthful, accurate, and specific, and which is neither disparaging nor misleading may appear on wine labels.”] and general First Amendment jurisprudence. Right now Section 4.38(a) disclosure is limited by the caveat that no additional information provided may conflict with other required label information.  

For example, if a winery includes narrative information on the back label of an “American wine” providing the consumer with disclosures about where the grapes that went into the wine were sourced, it would be in violation of the law.  These restrictions would also impact any advertising and marketing materials wineries put out because,under Section 4.64(g), advertisements of wine cannot include any “statements indicative or origin” unless that same information appears on the label. Thus a winery website, blog or twitter post that discloses the source of grapes in the wine is also a violation of the law under the proposed regulation.

It is currently unclear what position the TTB would take if a First Amendment claim was asserted following the denial of a back label narrative submission, or following advertising (which has the same restrictions and privileges) that informs consumers of where grapes for a particular wine were sourced.  It is quite clear that communication of the constituent ingredients in food products is commercial free speech and the test would then be to weigh the winery right to communicate truthful information to consumers against the TTB policy of protecting AVA designations by squelching information that conflicts with the labelingregulations, regardless of the truthfulness of such information.

This may be a situation where the proponents of the rule change should be careful what they ask for, because they might get it.

Interested parties can file comments with the TTB regarding the proposed changes here.  

Isn't A Written Agreement With A Distributor Worthless In A Franchise State?

We get this question all the time from clients, and we understand the pessimism. Why bother to draft an agreement when state law would trump any contract that conflicted with franchise laws designed to protect distributors?

If you’re a producer who sells your products in multiple states, you are probably already acquainted with alcohol franchise laws –legislation protective of distributors that seems more appropriate for, say, a McDonald’s franchisee whose entire livelihood rests on its right to use the McDonald’s name than for an alcoholic beverage distributor that sells dozens or even hundreds of brands.

Lawmakers might once have been able to make the dubious claim that alcoholic beverage franchise laws were needed to counter the “intimidation, bullying and abuse” (as one franchise state’s law puts it) of the small and powerless distributor at the hands of the big bad supplier.

Of course that notion is laughable now, when distributor consolidation and the proliferation of small craft producers have flipped that power dynamic on its head. Now it’s the giant distribution companies that wield the power, and suppliers find themselves without leverage or even a route to market in many states. Yet these outdated protectionist laws remain on the books in many states – in fact they have been recently added to the books in certain jurisdictions -- in part due to robust lobbying by the distributor tier. It’s no wonder our clients have resigned themselves to thinking the only way out in these states is through protracted litigation or expensive buyouts.

But that’s not the whole story. In the August issue of Practical Winery & Vineyard, we lay out in detail some of the reasons why a written distribution agreement can provide important protections even in franchise states, and we provide real-life tips for tracking distributor performance and managing your brand in franchise states.  Read more here.

Crowd Funding for Alcohol Producers and Retailers – Down the Rabbit Hole with the Tied House laws

Crowdfunding is the most intriguing recent method of raising capital for the development of small new business ventures; typically in small amounts of money from a large number of people.  Couple crowdfunding with the phenomenal increase in small craft producer start-ups in the wine, beer and distilled spirits industries over the course of the last five years and the result is a looming regulatory qualification and tied house nightmare for alcohol agencies operating under decades old rules designed for a past age. 

Because cross-tier relationships are generally prohibited by federal and state laws going back to the repeal of Prohibition, persons investing equity funds through crowd funding sites such as Kickstarter are not permitted to have conflicting inter-tier interests.  The simplest example of a conflicting equity interest would be a person with an ownership interest in a wine, liquor or beer producer investing in a restaurant crowdfund or a person with an ownership interest in a restaurant investing in a small craft producer crowdfund. 

This is not an academic issue. In Texas right now there are several currently pending law suits (Cadena, McLane’s – see below) challenging what has been called the Texas “one-share” rule where investors in industry members on one tier (such as retailers) have investors (often public investment funds) with interests in other tiers (such as international producers).  While the Texas lawsuits (involving very large entities with complex ownership structures) hold the potential of changing the rules dramatically in states like Texas, the small investor Kickstarter type space is where cross-tier tied house challenge across the country is going to face its most serious test.

This conundrum was explored at the recent (end of June) National Conference of State Liquor Law Administrators conference in Chicago. The result was more questions than answers.

What is Crowdfunding?

There are two types of crowdfunding.  One type seeks to raise equity funds in small amounts from a large number of investors.  This is called “equity crowdfunding.” The second type is where items, experiences, products and services are offered in return for funds processed through the crowdfunding website.  This is called “Reward” crowdfunding. The two are different in many ways but also similar with respect to the tied house laws.  Equity funding implicates the basic tied house laws.  Reward funding (especially when products are included) is a form of selling transaction that implicates normal regulatory issues related to product sales, invoices, event restrictions at production and other locations as well as middle tier fulfillment requirements.  Depending on the form of the reward transaction, and the value involved, the “thing of value” (anti-corruption) portion of the tied house laws may also be implicated.

The New Federal Crowdfunding Regulations

Congress enacted “The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act” (the “JOBS Act”) in April 2012. It included the “Capital Raising Online While Deterring Fraud and Unethical Non-Disclosure Act of 2012” (the “CROWDFUND Act”) as Title III. This set forth a basic structure for legal equity crowdfunding under the Securities laws.

On May 16, 2016, the SEC implemented regulations setting forth the basic investment rules.

The new regulations limit investment amounts and restrict transfers, while allowing crowdfunding for only certain types of companies; and require that investment be conducted through a crowdfunding portal (like Kickstarter, although there are many others) or a licensed broker.

The restrictions are that a company cannot raise more than one million dollars in a twelve-month period and annual financial disclosures are tiered based on the amount raised.

For example: if $100,000 or less is raised, financials are certified by the principal executive officer of the company. If $100,000 to $500,000 is raised, or up to $1,000,000 if it’s the first time crowdfunding, financials are reviewed by an independent public accountant. For repeat funding in the $500,000 to $1,000,000 range the financials must be audited by an independent public accountant.

The purpose of these regulations is to prevent an investment bubble and to protect individual investors.

There are also limits on the amount an individual can invest:

For example: If either annual income or net worth of the investor is less than $100,000, then during any 12-month period, an individual can invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth. However, if the income and net worth of the investor are over $100,000, then during the 12-month period, the person can invest up to 10% of annual income or net worth, whichever is lesser, but not more than $100,000 total.

The protections include a provision that the investor can change their mind and undo funding up to 48 hours before offer closes and cannot sell the equity investment for at least a year (this is to avoid speculation).

The Tied House Law Requirements

While the JOBS Act does an admirable job of creating a new form of investment market it has nothing to say about investment in regulated industries (such as alcohol, and soon Cannabis). Rather those requirements are left to the state, and they are different in every state.

Equity Issues

The consequence of any equity purchase, however structured or consummated, is to implicate the tied house laws and basic ABC and federal qualification protocols.

First, because equity buyers into licensees are required to undergo state required qualification (and federal qualification if a producer or wholesaler level entity is involved), that fact should be disclosed in the offering documentation and considered by the equity buyer before the investment is made. This is a major trap unless the offeror carefully vets the investors and fully discloses the regulatory qualification requirements.  This is because a failure to vet (and to qualify where qualification is necessary) could not only mean a loss of the investment but could also lead to an enforcement action by the relevant regulatory authorities. In almost every state there is an affidavit submitted as part of the licensing process (and attested to as true and accurate under penalty of perjury as part of the annual license renewal process). The affidavit represents that no owner of the company has an interest in another license on another tier except as disclosed, and failure to disclose is a crime.

Second, unless the state has a relevant minority shareholder or public company ownership exception (i.e., that share ownership is under some small number, like 5%, or the shares are publicly traded - most states do NOT have these exceptions), the licensee should be counselled to submit requalification documentation at the completion of the offering program with appropriate certifications of compliance with the tied house laws or other laws or regulations.

Third, other laws in many states may also limit or prohibit ownership interest in a particular license type or licensed business; such as the prohibitions on the number of premise licenses in which any one person may hold an interest. Each state has its own regulations and limitations.  In California, for example, a winegrower may have an interest in no more than two on-premises licenses (subject to conditions) and in many other states there is a limitation on how many off-premises licenses may be held (such as NY, where the limit is one, NJ two, etc.).  This is why all investment offerings should be cleared with legal advisors before being finalized.

Reward issues

Reward crowdfunding, not involving equity, refers to transactions where consideration is exchanged for things and experiences (such as holding events at the producer location, the right to post or be featured on artwork, the right to receive special products in the future, the right to assist in production – the imagination knows no bounds for the marketer).

Rewards should always be treated as a sale of merchandise, goods or services (including tax, invoicing and accounting consequences). There are many other potential issues with crowd-sourced rewards. For example, rewards offered by suppliers (small craft producers) and purchased by retailers (or vice versa) implicate the tied house law “thing of value” regulations as well (if product is involved) as the basic three-tier system requirements (including brand registration, invoicing, non-discrimination rules and price posting) in the state at issue for the flow of product into the marketplace.  

Every Reward should be analyzed in the context of existing regulations in the state. The best way to start the analysis is to ask if you can sell the goods or services for the price expected in the normal course of business; if you can, then it is likely that you can also crowd fund the reward.

Texas – A Laboratory for Inter-tier ownership Issues

There are two pending Texas cases involving inter-tier licensing issues now in the courts, one involving a retailer and one involving a wholesaler, and both raising the thorny issue of how much (if any) remote inter-tier cross ownership is permitted. 

In Cadena, an application for licensure of a convenience store chain (OXXO) was denied because the Mexican owner of the chain (FEMSA) has a 20% interest in Heineken in Europe.  Cadena lost its fight to be licensed at the lower court level and is now appealing to the Texas Supreme Court. The claim there is that the Texas one-share rule (which the TABC, by the way, denies is a rule) is unconstitutional, arbitrary, vague and, generally speaking, absurd.  Here is a link to the lower court decision

In McLane’s, a national food distributor (McLane’s is a major public company substantially owned by Berkshire Hathaway with somewhere around $48 billion in annual sales from 39 distribution centers covering all 50 states) is seeking a wholesale distributor license in Texas following its licensure as a distributor in several other states (including Tennessee). The TABC denied licensure on the grounds that Berkshire Hathaway (a public company) also has ownership interests in public investment funds that own shares in major retailers. McLane’s is now suing the TABC on various constitutional grounds that run the gamut of claims (equal protection, arbitrary and capricious, due process, Commerce Clause, etc.) but boil down to the observation that if McLane’s is in violation of the law so is every major pension fund in the US, including the one for the TABC employees. The "absurd" argument is also made in this case. Here is a link to the lawsuit filing announcement

While these cases are Texas specific the results could very well frame the next generation of tied house analysis in all the rest of the states with respect to inter-tier equity analysis.

Conclusion

Crowdfunding under the new SEC rules is an exciting development in the on-going effort to capitalize small businesses, such as restaurants and craft producers. With proper attention to basic detail (qualification and vetting of proposed participants and through explanation of the limitations in the offering material) this can be the answer to the capital dreams of many entrepreneurs.  However, given the danger posed by the country’s antiquated tied house laws, any budding businessperson looking to the crowdfunding capital markets for a growth solution is strongly encouraged to carefully clear their material through their accountant and their attorney.  Nothing is worse than raising money and then having to give it back because due diligence was not done. Maybe one thing is worse: committing a crime (violating the tied house laws is a statutory misdemeanor in most states) without knowing about it, exposing your investing friends in the process and then having to give the money back.

Remember, as the old Sargent on Hill Street Blues said over 35 years ago: “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”  We would add to that admonition: Do your due diligence when you raise money.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the BPA Warning Statement but were afraid to ask

By John Edwards and John Hinman

This is about BPA and the emergency regulation that was adopted in May by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”). Many trade associations, Family Winemakers and the Wine Institute most prominently, have sent bulletins to their members advising them of the new regulation.

Our goal is to pass on the best recommendations for protecting your license against public and potential private enforcement. The penalties if the signage is required and is not up could be as much as $2,500 per day, and in the background loom the plaintiff’s lawyers looking for an easy payday (as happened in the arsenic cases that are now on appeal after being dismissed - see blog).

Who is required to post a sign and where does it have to be posted? Every manufacturer, importer or retailer that sells canned and bottled foods and beverages, including alcoholic beverages, that MAY contain BPA must post the warning at the point of sale. This includes out of state wineries and retailers with customers in California. The point of sale definition includes the check-out page of the seller’s website, as well as winery tasting rooms, bars, restaurants, supermarkets and wine and spirits merchants.

Who does NOT have to post the sign? If the products that you sell do NOT contain BPA, no sign is needed.  However to be protected by this exception you must know for certain that no product you sell (or material included in the products you sell) contains BPA. This is difficult to determine because BPA is found in so many different products.

How do you know if the product contains BPA?  You ask your vendors or have the products tested. The Wine Institute recommendation is that sellers and manufacturers ask their vendors for affirmative certification that there is NO BPA in their products (“We hereby certify that there is no Bisphenol A (BPA) in [name of] product”).  That is prudent advice. If you are a manufacturer you would be asking your product vendors (bottles, capsules, etc.).  If you are reseller (such as a retailer) the certification would be asked for from the manufacturer (winery, brewery or distillery) directly or through the wholesaler. Licensees should both require the certification and post the warning statement. The downside of the vendor certification is that if it turns out to be not true the licensee relying on the certification might have a lawsuit against the vendor but is not relieved from liability from the warning statement requirement.

The “Emergency Regulation” and the Warning Statement

On May 16th OEHHA adopted emergency regulations that require manufacturers and retailers of food and beverage containers containing a compound known as Bisphenol A or “BPA” to provide a specific warning about that compound. The Emergency regulation will be in place for an 18-month period while final regulations (probably the same as the emergency regulations) are being drafted and adopted.

OEHHA is the agency responsible for enforcing “Proposition 65,” the California law that requires warnings to the public about compounds that OEHHA determines may cause cancer (carcinogens) or reproductive harm (teratogens). 

Typically, the warning requirements are satisfied by posting the signs we see everywhere in California (even in hospitals) warning that a facility or a consumer product contains compounds “known to the State of California” to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  Naming all of the listed compounds in the facility is not generally required, which is fortunate, because the list of “known” carcinogens and teratogens contains hundreds of compounds.

The purpose of the emergency regulations is to provide warnings to consumers about BPA either on product labels or at the Point of Sale during the anticipated 18-month interim period.  The Regulations require a manufacturer of any canned or bottled beverages that contain BPA either to:

  • Place a warning label on the product itself stating: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm;” or
     
  • Notify all California retailers of any of its products that may result in an exposure to BPA and provide a sufficient number of compliant Point of Sale warning signs.

The Regulations require retailers to display compliant warnings at each Point of Sale, which includes not only cash registers and checkout lines, but “electronic checkout functions on internet websites.”  The warning signs must be at least 5” X 5” and contain the following

WARNING

Many food and beverage cans have linings containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical known to the State of California to cause harm to the female reproductive system. Jar lids and bottle caps may also contain BPA.

You can be exposed to BPA when you consume foods or beverages packaged in these containers.

For more information, go to: www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/BPA.

The BPA warning is, of course, in addition to the warning signs that retailers of alcoholic beverages are already required to display, which state:

WARNING: Drinking Distilled Spirits, Beer, Coolers, Wine and Other Alcoholic Beverages May Increase Cancer Risk, and, During Pregnancy, Can Cause Birth Defects.”

These warning signs should soon be going up in tasting rooms, restaurants and retail stores throughout the state.  But if the product at issue is shipped to the consumer the “Point of Sale” is considered to be the check-out page of the internet website of the seller.       

What is BPA?

BPA is a compound that is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.  Polycarbonate plastics are used to make bottles, bottle caps, and flasks.  Epoxy resins are used to coat metal cans containing food and beverages, and they may also be used to coat metal caps used on glass bottles.  Given the widespread use of plastics and epoxy resins in packaging for alcoholic beverages, the new OEHHA regulation affects both manufacturers and retailers of those beverages.

BPA is also used in the manufacture of carbonless copy paper—including the paper used in printed sales receipts.  For this reason the BPA warning requirement is particularly relevant to retailers and in tasting rooms.

Why do the agencies think that BPA is bad?

BPA has been accused of causing fetal and developmental abnormalities, endocrine systems abnormalities, and cancer.  The compound has been studied extensively, with inconclusive results.  The FDA has concluded that the use of BPA at current levels in the nation’s food supply is safe and has approved the use of BPA in food and beverage containers (except for baby formula), notwithstanding that minute amounts of BPA may leach from the container into the contents.  The EU has reached the same conclusion.  On the federal level, the only substantive action has been a ban on the use of BPA in baby formula cans, baby bottles and toddler cups.

In 2009, the California OEHHA unanimously decided that BPA would not be listed as a “known” teratogen.  In 2015, however, the OEHHA reversed that decision and decided that the State now “knows” that BPA causes reproductive harm. 

Prop 65 provides a year for compliance after a compound is listed, because listing imposes an arduous process on affected businesses.  Each business must determine whether any of its products expose individuals to the compound above a regulatory safe harbor, if any has been set.  If so, the business must then provide the generic warning conspicuously on the label, shelf tags, menus or any combination of those.  Identification of the specific compound in the product is not generally required.

OEHHA decided that emergency action was needed in the “unique” situation of BPA because:

  • BPA was widely used in food and beverage containers prior to the 2015 listing.  Many of those containers are still in the stream of commerce and have no warnings at all.  Removal of these items from commerce because of enforcement concerns could jeopardize the food supply.
     
  • OEHHA has not set a safe harbor for oral exposure to BPA, because there is no consensus on the Maximum Allowable Dose Level for that exposure.  OEHHA expects to have the results of federally-sponsored research on that issue by late 2017 or 2018.
     
  • The listing of BPA could cause a plethora of warnings on products and shelves that might alarm or confuse consumers.
     
  • The general Prop 65 warning could create “a uniquely high potential for confusion” about BPA.
     
  • Interim regulations will inform and protect the public and allow manufacturers to reduce or eliminate BPA exposure.

OEHHA will replace the emergency regulations with likely identical interim regulations, which will are expected to be in effect for about 18 months.

What does OEHHA want to accomplish with these Emergency Regulations?

Keeping in mind that the OEHHA already “knows” that alcohol itself can be a carcinogen (if abused) and a teratogen, you may ask what the OEHHA hopes to accomplish by duplicating the existing warning with one specifically targeting minute amounts of BPA that may have leached from the container.  Frankly, we can only guess at the end-game, and our best guess starts with the phrase “regulatory overkill.”

A Current BPA Issue —Sales Receipts and “Unclean Hands”

As noted above, the OEHHA has not yet been able to set a Maximum Allowable Dose Level for oral consumption of BPA.  It has, however, set a Maximum Allowable Dose Level for dermal exposure to BPA from solid materials at 3 micrograms/day, and that level goes into effect in October of this year (2016).  Once in effect, potential higher exposure will trigger a warning requirement for dermal exposure.

BPA is being used in carbonless copy paper, which is used to make the multiple copies of receipts that emerge from cash registers and charge card readers.  One of the “private enforcers” of Prop 65 has already raised a new issue of concern to on-site sellers of alcohol: dermal exposure to BPA from sales receipts. 

Even before the OEHHA had announced its 3 mg./day Maximum Allowable Dose Level for dermal exposure to BPA, an “environmental advocacy group” had issued a Notice of Violation to a fast food restaurant, alleging that its sales receipts violated Prop 65 because of dermal exposure to BPA. 

No one knows whether that group can prove that a sales receipt results in dermal exposure to more than 3 mg. of BPA per day or whether that Notice portends additional action relating to BPA in copy paper.  If it does, printing the notice, “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm” on the receipt will likely be the result.  We can only imagine what the credit card equipment manufacturers will do with such a requirement.

We recommend that:

  • Manufacturers selling products in California analyze their packaging or require certifications about BPA content from their suppliers.  Ongoing monitoring is required to protect against suppliers that change their formulas or their own suppliers and thereby introduce BPA where none existed before.  If BPA is being or has been used on products in retailers’ inventories, manufacturers should immediately notify their California retailers and provide the required Point of Sale warning signs.
     
  • Retailers should post the required BPA warning, unless they have certifications from every supplier that none of the products in their inventories contain BPA, which is an unlikely occurrence.  Retailers with a large number of items in inventory (including items made before May 2016) and suppliers from outside California are unlikely to have the certainty that their products are free from BPA.  Providing the warning is a prudent protective measure.
     
  • Our final recommendation is that all affected sellers spend some quality time with their trade associations to see if some sanity can be brought into the OEHHA system of regulation.  BPA may be a problem, but there should be a better way to address it than to require extensive warning signage that most consumers (if they read it) will ignore.

AB 2082 - A Hunting License for Police and a Lethal Weapon for Politicians that Deprives Licensees of Currently Available Due Process Rights

Every licensee in California will be at risk of closure without an effective right of defense if the legislation proposed in AB 2082 (Campos) takes effect.  AB 2082 authorizes an immediate shutdown of any licensee by the ABC and effectively suspends all current due process protections and rights to a hearing in the interim.  All that it takes to close a business down would be a complaint made by a police department or public official to the ABC that there is “direct evidence” of an “immediate threat” to the public safety. This “threat” could either be the result of the operation of the premises, or a result of potentially dangerous conditions in areas close to the affected business.  Under this bill most licensees in cities like Oakland, San Francisco, LA, Fresno and San Jose could be at immediate risk of being put out of business simply because of the dangerous neighborhoods they are located in.

This bill is a hunting license for the police and a lethal weapon for the politicians. While we believe that most police departments and political officials act in good faith and in accordance with their responsibilities to the public, it is also unfortunately the case that an active minority do not. What this bill does is empower the minority of enforcement officials who do not respect, and are frustrated by, the due process safeguards built into the current system.

Unlike current law, which requires notice of violation and a hearing at which a licensee can defend itself, as well a right to an appeal to the ABC Appeals Board (the governing agency over the ABC, and often the only real source of justice because ABC hearing officers are all retired ABC prosecutors), AB 2082 permits the business to be closed first and defenses raised later. This presupposes (of course) that the licensee can immediately find and engage a lawyer; all the while avoiding going bankrupt from being out of business during what will most certainly be months if not years of litigation. This is regardless of the attempt to build impossible to manage expedited procedures into the legislation. Few licensees can make payroll and rent if they can’t remain open, and getting expedited hearings is next to impossible considering the nature of the current hearing system.

This bill is also an open invitation to public official and law enforcement abuse of licensees whose businesses are not well liked because they attract young people, people of color, or the licensee hosts events that irritate neighbors because they create noise, or have experienced substance abuse problems or cause allegedly hazardous traffic conditions.  This includes nightclubs, restaurants that provide entertainment, dancing and music to the younger crowd as well as supplier licensees (such as wineries, breweries and now distilleries) that host events where traffic, noise and substance abuse are alleged to be a problem for the neighbors.  This can also include grocery and liquor stores in undesirable neighborhoods where the clientele is poor and struggling.

All it takes to close a business under AB 2082 is an alleged “immediate threat to public safety.”  Who interprets what the threat really is and what really caused it are at the heart of the danger that this bill poses. For example, we are involved in a current case where the police allege that public safety was threatened because patrons of a club where a hip-hop entertainer played went to a pizza parlor across the street after the club closed and got into a fight with a police officer. How was that the fault of the club?  Yet that is what the police alleged and attempted to prove. Their theory is that the fight would not have occurred had the Club been closed and no patrons been at the show.

Oher “threats” to public safety that have been alleged in recent cases include fights in a parking lot down the block from a nightclub (but not part of the premises, and that services multiple clubs), assaults causing serious injury by one girl against another at a bachelorette party at a winery, incidents on the sidewalk in front of a grocery store involving teen-agers hanging out and harassing passers-by, being caught with drugs at a rock concert in a licensed venue, and a fatal auto accident in the middle of the night on a road in wine county where the driver had been drinking at the licensed premises earlier in the evening. 

These are all incidents which could, under AB 2082, have resulted in the immediate closure of the subject licensed business. In our experience, some police officers (usually acting as surrogates for public officials) consider any licensed business that offers alcohol, music and/or dancing to be a potential threat to public safety.  The fact that due process currently exists forces law enforcement to adopt measured responses to situations that they believe threaten public safety. AB 2082 strips away measured responses, as well as due process, and leaves in its place the potential for arbitrary and punitive reactions.

Do you trust public officials and police to be free from bias against specific businesses, or specific operators?  While the great majority of police officers and public officials are responsible and act in good faith, our experience is that there are a minority of police and public officials who hold grudges for all kinds of reasons. This legislation gives the minority who are frustrated by the concept of due process and having to prove their case the cover they need to go after those who opposed them in the past with immediate retribution.

This is a bill that must be defeated for the licensed alcohol industry to be able to stand up to overzealous officials, whether law enforcement or politicians.  This bill is not intended to solve a public safety problem but rather to hand law enforcement and politicians a lethal weapon to use against licensees.

“Better Late Than Never”-- Judge in Illinois Dismisses 201 Sales Tax Cases against Retailers

Is This the End of the Road for Steve Diamond's One-Man Crusade to Become Wealthy from Suing the Wine Industry?

By John W. Edwards II and John Hinman 

We have been reviewing the progress of the Illinois “Whistle-Blower” sales tax on shipping fees cases for well over a year while the cases have been pending [Illinois Qui Tam Lawsuits - Private Enforcement of a State Claim: A Bonanza for a Plaintiff's Lawyer & a Rip-Off of Retailers; IL Attorney General’s Office Announces Intention to Dismiss False Claims Act Against Liquor Retailers; IL Finally Offers Certainty & Relief for Victims of Sales Tax Lawsuits, but Prompt Action is Required in Pending Cases; Relief at Last! IL Moves to Fix the Sales Tax Lawsuits Against Out-Of-State Sellers But Proposes to Penalize Wineries & Retailers That Ship Without Permits]. 

We are now pleased to report that the end of the line for the plaintiff appears to be getting closer.  The plaintiff Chicago law firm headed up by Steve Diamond had most of his cases against retailers dismissed last week. Diamond has been enriching himself for ten years through “settlements” with out-of-state producers and retailers (in recent years involving many producers and retailers of alcoholic beverages) by claiming a failure to pay sales taxes on shipping and handling charges paid by Illinois residents who purchase wine from out of state retailers and wineries for shipment to their homes, and then suing the producers and retailers on behalf of the state.   His scheme, at least as it involves retailers and producers without Illinois permits or licenses, may finally be ending.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan moved to dismiss 201 cases against out-of-state retailers in the trial court of Cook County.  The cases included many that were still “sealed,” meaning that the State had not decided whether to intervene.  The Attorney General had previously moved to dismiss 350 other cases filed by Diamond.  The Attorney General’s motion to dismiss these 201 cases asserted that that they were “unlikely to be viable…because the relator’s [Diamond’s] complaints contained no allegations that the defendants had any presence in Illinois that could establish tax liability.” What this means is that without a state license or a state direct shipping permit (which establishes an agreement to submit to the jurisdiction of the state), or affirmative acts of marketing to Illinois residents, the seller was not doing business in Illinois and therefore could not be sued in Illinois. The motion was granted by the trial court on May 23, 2016.

Diamond opposed the Attorney General’s motion.  The Court ruled, however, that Illinois law provides discretion to the Attorney General to dismiss qui tam (Latin for “whistle blower”) cases brought on behalf of the State. The court said that the decision to dismiss can be overruled only upon a showing of “glaring bad faith” by the Attorney General.  Left unsaid, of course, was what the result should be when it is shown that Diamond has acted with “glaring bad faith.”

Diamond can appeal the trial court’s decision.  However, given the uniquely high standard of proof that Diamond must meet (“glaring bad faith” by the Attorney General), the prospects for a successful appeal appear bleak.  That is very good news for those that have been brought kicking and screaming into the Illinois courts by Diamond – their ordeal may finally be coming to an end!

Looking inside the decision of this court, however, we see the application of a principle that may protect retailers who are legally prohibited from obtaining direct shipping permits from states such as Illinois, as well as the wineries that ship wine purchased by their winery visitors to the buyers home without direct shipping permits (which is the case with many very small wineries throughout the US).  That is, if the seller doesn’t (or is not permitted to) register with the state, and the seller requires the purchaser to be the party legally sending the wine to the address desired by the purchaser, then the receiving state doesn’t have an adequate “nexus” (connection) with the out of state seller to assert liability for taxes. This also presumptively applies to other forms of liability (such as criminal or civil liability against the seller for assisting the state resident buyer’s violation of the relevant direct shipping protocol).  This would certainly validate the common seller (retailers and wineries alike) practice of paying sales taxes on sales in their home state and putting the onus on the buyer to be responsible for taxes in the state of the buyer. This makes the common invoice admonition “title passes to the buyer at the winery (or the store)” a potentially very powerful legal protection.

However, this compounds the uncertainly that is currently playing out in states such as New York over initiatives to hold retailers (such as Empire wine in Albany) responsible for violating the laws of other states by permitting (or assisting) customers buying in New York to ship to themselves in other states. Did the Illinois court really find that Illinois has no jurisdiction over New York (or California, or other states) retailers or producers with customers from Illinois if the goods are actually imported by the buyer as a technical contractual matter? A strong argument can be made that this is exactly what happened on May 23rd (which, if true, may soon be known as direct shipping freedom day in Illinois).

The stakes continue to rise across the US as retailers, international producers and small wineries without direct shipping permits continue to accommodate consumer demand for their products by allowing consumers to ship wine to themselves regardless of where they live. Stay tuned because this Illinois battle is not yet over.  There is too much money in it for Diamond who, rumor has it, is very well connected politically in the Illinois capital.

The Day the Music Almost Died: The Story of the BottleRock ABC Accusations, the ABC Appeals Board and a Victory for a Common Sense Interpretation of the Tied House Laws

In a huge victory for common sense interpretation of the law and a reaffirmation of reasonableness by the California ABC Appeals Board, several decisions in favor of wineries (Hinman & Carmichael LLP clients) who participated in the 2013 BottleRock festival have clarified the muddy waters of tied-house issues in California.  The ABC Appeals Board’s opinions reversing findings of violations of ABC statutes relating to indirect ownership of retail licenses and sponsorships of festivals, and the exchange of goods for promotional consideration, pave the way for a more rational ABC approach to the tied-house laws in the future. 

The 2013 Festival and the ABC – the Backstory

In 2013 a group of promoters in Napa invented the music festival known as BottleRock. BottleRock Festivals LLC (BRF) signed up wineries from Napa and Sonoma (as well as a major brewer) as sponsors. The festival featured three days of music and wineries presenting their wines to festival attendees in tents at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds. Before the festival the BRF promoters met with the ABC and showed ABC the sponsorship contracts (which provided for venues for after-parties, including the Uptown Theatre; wine being contributed to the artist’s gift bags for promotional purposes; wine being contributed for charitable auction donations in connection with the event; as well as generous ticket packages and hospitality tents for the sponsors). BRF booked the acts, publicized the festival and worked with a caterer to have wine poured in the hospitality tents under a permit issued by the ABC, which the sponsoring wineries considered to be ABC approval of the event.

Almost immediately after the 2013 festival concluded, BRF had financial problems and declared bankruptcy. About that time an ABC investigator trolling the internet came across a story that connected the BRF principals to the Uptown Theatre through a real estate investment trust that owned a minority (21%) interest in the LLC that owned the Uptown (this is called an indirect ownership interest). None of the wineries knew any details about the interest of the promoters in the Uptown, and the chain of indirect ownership could not have been discovered had someone using the ABC public records looked up the Uptown’s ownership. That is because only direct ownership interests show up on the ABC public databases.

“Gotcha” declared the investigator!  This, he concluded, was all the ABC needed to bring a case against ALL of the producer-licensed sponsors.  He theorized that, because the “after-parties” were at the Uptown (a licensed venue) and BRF revenue (which may or may not have come from sponsorship funds from the wineries; no one could prove this one way or another) was used to pay for those parties, the wineries had indirectly provided a “thing of value” to the Uptown in violation of the tied house laws. The ABC filed the accusations on that theory. 

The ABC Accusations, the Hearings and the Appeal Dismissing the Accusation

Of the approximately two dozen wineries and other suppliers indicted by the ABC in 2014, most settled for a fine, a license suspension for 10 to 15 days or probation for a year.  However, many wineries felt they had done nothing wrong and were determined to defend themselves. These wineries went to hearings at which the allegations in the accusations were challenged. There was no substantive dispute over the facts; the real dispute was over the legal standards to apply to the facts. The result after the hearing (the ABC Director was the decision maker) was a conviction based on the ABC’s legal theory that neither knowledge of a tied relationship, nor intent to violate the law via that relationship, was necessary to finding a violation.

Our clients appealed to the ABC Appeals Board, which has jurisdiction over the ABC and the power to reverse ABC decisions. The reversals by the Appeals Board sent a clear message to the ABC.

The most important result from these cases is the publication of a refined standard of conduct that will now be required for the ABC to find a licensee guilty of a tied house violation related to a thing of value.

The lessons from these cases will benefit every licensee in this state.

Just as important (and perhaps more important from a day to day operational perspective), the Appeals Board specifically found that alcoholic beverages bartered for promotional consideration (specifically, the wine provided for the artists in their gift bags) do not violate the Section 25600 prohibition on “premiums, gifts or free goods.”  This provides enormous relief to those wineries who use wine for trade, provide wine to wine writers and who provide wine to events in return for promotional consideration.  The board found that “promotional consideration” was in fact “consideration” and nothing had been given away for free. 

While this application of the California Civil Code definition of “consideration” to the ABC Act prohibitions is heartening, licensees are cautioned that use of this privilege requires careful adherence to proper invoicing and bookkeeping procedures. 

The BottleRock festival (under different promoters) proceeded in 2014 and 2015 (and will soon happen again in 2016) under the aegis of special legislation applying to the festival itself and to the Napa Fairgrounds.  Unfortunately that legislation does not apply to other music festivals in other places in the state.  However, because ABC Appeals Board decisions do apply throughout the state we can safely say that the music now lives!

Why the Accusations were dismissed

The Appeals Board, after performing a statutory analysis of the claimed ABC theory of criminality, essentially said “nonsense.” The Appeals Board said that the “directly or indirectly” standard (at least in the context of the Section 25500(a)(2) “thing of value” section) does not apply to the “ownership” of the retail venue but rather to the “inducement” (or “thing of value”) actually provided by the supplier to the retail account for the purpose of inducing the retail account’s purchase of the supplier’s product. While legalistic, this is a critical distinction for guidance of future conduct. Basically this means that the important factor is the nature and purpose of the inducement, not the nature of the ownership or investment interests.

In the context of these cases the lesson was clear – you can’t have a “thing of value” violation based solely on indirect ownership connections.

There must be a connection between the inducement and the supplier

In the BottleRock cases there was no intent on the part of the defendant wineries to program their brands into the Uptown, the purportedly “tied” retail account. In fact, most of them didn’t even sell wine to the Uptown, and none of them attended the after-parties there. This was consistent with the finding of the Schiefflin case where the supplier was found guilty because it paid money to a promotional company that underwrote retailer expenses to curry favor with the retailer. That was an example of inducing the retailer to purchase the supplier’s products because the retailer received a thing of value from a third party.

The result is that any “thing of value” charge against a winery (or a retailer, both are liable) from now on must include a clear connection between the supplier, the thing of value and the retailer as well as a benefit to the retailer connected to the suppliers brand being promoted in the retail account. The government must also show some evidence of a corrupt intent.  Put more positively, the Appeals Board will not countenance “Gotcha” prosecutions based upon facts that were unknown to, and unknowable by, the licensee.  This negates any intent to violate the statute. While licensees no longer need to fear prosecutions based on unknowable facts, it is nonetheless always prudent to do a due diligence on those with whom the licensee does business.

This conclusion comports with the corruption-based cases currently rocking the industry. In Massachusetts the Craft Brewer’s Guild just paid $2.6 million to avoid a 90 day shutdown for bribing on-premises accounts to get tap handles.  And in Ohio the Kroger’s/Southern initiative requiring suppliers who wanted to get their wines into Kroger’s to pay 3% of total sales to a marketing company furnishing services to Kroger’s was recently determined by Ohio to be a violation of its tied house laws.  In both of those instances the intent of the suppliers is to benefit a retail account for the direct purpose of inducing the retailer to carry their brands.  Intent to induce is now clearly required for a violation to be found in California.  That comports with federal law, and the law of most other states.

The First Amendment Defense: What the Board Said by Not Going There

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the decisions was the way the Appeals Board dealt with the First Amendment defense.  The defendants asserted a First Amendment defense because participation in the BottleRock festival was indisputably commercial speech protected by the First Amendment, as we have explained in previous posts [Commercial Speech & Alcoholic Beverages – Part I, Part II, Part III and The Grapes Escaped – Why The First Amendment Matters].  The courts have been applying increasingly rigorous standards to curb governmental restrictions on commercial speech, the most recent being the January 2016 Retail Digital Network (RDN) case.  The Appeals Board noted that, because it found for the defendants on the basis of the ABC’s failure to meet the statutory requirements for liability (as discussed above), it did not need to address the First Amendment issues. The Board nonetheless went on to devote over a page to RDN.  RDN is still an active case with potential appeals or a remand for a district court trial on the merits looming.  We will report on these developments as they occur.

In RDN the 9th Circuit overruled the 1986 9th Circuit Actmedia case, which prohibited a supplier from paying a retailer to advertise in retail premises. Up to now, Actmedia has been the standard used to gauge tied house liability for paying retailers for advertising.  RDN placed screens in retail accounts carrying basic content as well as supplier advertising, and paid the retailers to put up the screens up.  The ABC considered this to be a basic tied house violation (indirect payment of money to a retail account by a beverage supplier).  The 9th Circuit found that this was commercial free speech and the ABC had to meet a “heightened” standard of scrutiny under recent Supreme Court precedent in order to punish this conduct.

This quote from the Retail Digital Network case was cited by the Appeals Board in their discussion of the decision.  Judge for yourself what this says about how the Appeals Board thinks tied house policy in the real world should be evaluated:

“While California has a legitimate interest in preventing the ills associated with tied-house arrangements, statements in the Retail Digital Network opinion denote skepticism about the Department's apparent "all-or-nothing" application and enforcement of the tied-house statutes and invite legislative reexamination of the tied- house laws: ‘While we 'hesitate to disagree with the accumulated, common-sense judgments of [the] lawmakers' who enacted [the tied-house statutes], we cannot say on the record before us that the State's Prohibition-era concern about advertising payments leading to vertical and horizontal integration, and thus leading to other social ills, remains an actual problem in need of solving.’” (Retail Digital Network, 9th Cir. 2016, 810 F.3d 638). 

There are many Lessons in these cases – Here are a few. 

  • Lesson 1: Do your homework. Before engaging in activities involving sponsorship requests find out exactly who is involved, who the money is going to and what it is paying for. Always follow the money.
  • Lesson 2: Have a good sponsorship agreement with clear terms. This is critical because the agreement should specify who the money is going to, what it is being used for and contain representations and warranties related to the promoters as well as any retailers also involved in the event.
  • Lesson 3: Question the promoters. Find out how much experience they have and make sure that you are comfortable with their plans for the event and their use of the sponsorship funds.
  • Lesson 4: Use invoices for promotional trades of wine. Keep your books properly because the value of the wine that is being used for promotion is part of the cost of that promotion.
  • Lesson 5: Don’t deliver wine to a caterer on a Sunday. (This 1935 law was cited in one of the accusations, really!). Wine can be picked up by a caterer on a Sunday but not delivered.

The cases were tried by John Hinman and Rebecca Stamey-White.  John, Rebecca and John Edwards worked on the briefs.  Rebecca argued all of the cases before the ABC Appeals Board.