Yesterday I wrote about the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB) ending the ‘corkage free zone’ in Yakima. This popular program allowed consumers to buy wine from local wineries and drink the wine at local restaurants – provided the wine was bought the same day – without paying a corkage fee. Below is additional information from both the LCB and Washington Wine Institute (WWI) regarding the matter.

While initial indications were that Yakima’s ‘corkage free zone’ might have come to the LCB’s attention due to interest by other parties in creating a similar program elsewhere, Communications Director Brian Smith, says that the LCB was following up on the issue due to a complaint from within the industry.

In terms of the specific issue with the ‘corkage free zone,’ Smith states:

“The legal issue with the agreement between local wineries and local restaurants is that they were singling out specific wineries in the state of Washington rather than allowing any Washington winery.

In Yakima, the wineries are giving customers a “corkage fee pass” to take to any restaurant the winery recommends and the customer was not charged a corkage fee. This gives those restaurants an advantage over any restaurant that hasn’t entered into the agreement. It also gives the participating wineries an advantage over any winery that hasn’t entered into the agreement.

The state alcohol laws that govern business relationships between manufacturers (wineries), distributors and retailers (restaurants) state that manufacturers can’t provide items beyond “nominal value” (money’s worth). Manufacturers also can’t provide any items to customers free of charge. In this case, waiving a restaurant corkage fee is providing something of significant value to a customer.

If a restaurant is not part of the agreement, they don’t get the recommendation from the winery. And, the winery that isn’t part of the agreement will have a corkage fee charged on their wine at the restaurant.”

Jean Leonard, Director of Government Affairs, for the Washington Wine Institute disagrees with the LCB’s assessment, saying:

“WWI disagrees with the LCB’s interpretation that the Yakima program is a violation of “tied house” laws and we have challenged the analysis included in their enforcement letter. We are hoping to resolve this issue with the Liquor Board by clarifying that certain promotional activities are legal. We think that the restaurants’ idea of voluntarily waiving a corkage fee for customers bringing in a bottle of wine is a great opportunity for restaurants and wineries.”

The LCB’s Smith says, “As always, we’re willing to work with the Wine Institute to find a solution. The most likely solution is through the Legislature granting an exception to the law.”

Stay tuned.