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01.19.2011  
 

Washington Relents on Corkage-Free Wines

New programs expected to follow lead of Yakima wineries and restaurants

 
by Peter Mitham
 
 
Kana Winery
 
Kana Winery was among the urban wineries in downtown Yakima that successfully launched a corkage-free plan with local restaurants in 2009. Shut down briefly by the state liquor authorities, the program again has the go-ahead.
Yakima, Wash.—Regulators in Washington state have opened the door to restaurants’ waivers of corkage fee for local wines bought the same day, a move local wineries believe will support sales during a difficult economic era. Restaurants have sought to waive corkage in the past, with Yakima restaurants pioneering one successful initiative during the past three years.

Jar Arcand of Santiago’s, a Mexican restaurant in Yakima, approached local wineries and tasting rooms in 2008, offering to waive corkage fees if visitors brought in the wines that day to accompany a meal.

The success of the arrangement led 14 downtown restaurants and seven wineries in September 2009 to create a corkage-free zone in Yakima for local wines purchased the same day. Katherine Goodson of 2,500-case Kana Winery in Yakima, which was part of the initiative, said the program was a way to make tourists feel welcome, and recognized their importance to the local economy.

“(Guests) loved coming into town and knowing that the town recognizes them,” she told Wines & Vines, noting that the initiative was more about cooperation among businesses than boosting sales. “We didn’t know if those guests that we told they could go to certain restaurants and have their corkage fee waived; we don’t know if they actually went,” Goodson said. “We didn’t offer this until after we sold our wines, because we were trying to be careful not to use that as a sales pitch, because our wines had better be the sales pitch.”

Restaurants and wineries received positive feedback, and the program ran successfully until late 2010, when the Spokane Winery Association sought clearance from the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) for a similar arrangement.
Mike Conway Latah Creek
 
Mike Conway, owner of Latah Creek Winery and a pioneer of the Washington wine industry, stirred up some trouble when he tried to initiate a corkage-free program in Spokane, but the issue was quickly resolved, opening the way for similar programs around the state.
“The initial interpretation by the liquor board was that it was in violation of tied-house rules, because it was forming a relationship between a small group of wineries and a small group of restaurants,” Mike Conway, association president and owner of 17,000-case Latah Creek Wine Cellars in Spokane Valley, explained.

The liquor board took issue with the apparently exclusive nature of the Spokane proposal and put the kibosh on both it and the Yakima initiative that had been its inspiration. A move by 3,500-case Barrister Winery in Spokane to pioneer a similar arrangement with local restaurants also was shut down, Conway said.

The situation attracted the attention of the Washington Wine Institute, which worked with WSLCB officials regarding interpretation of liquor laws, in order to allow an arrangement whereby restaurants could waive corkage fees in support of the state’s wine industry.

Meeting of the minds

A productive meeting was held Jan. 15, and wine institute executive director Jean Leonard received word yesterday that the WSLCB considered the matter resolved.

“If the program is opened up to all wineries and restaurants that want to participate, then that type of program would be allowable under current law,” Leonard told Wines & Vines. “I would expect that once restaurants and wineries realize that a program such as this can go forward, so long as it’s not an exclusive agreement between particular wineries and restaurants, they will try to establish programs that are in compliance.”

Resolution of the issue paves the way for the restart of the Yakima initiative, and the launch of one in Spokane. “I think it’s an exciting move in the right direction,” Conway said.

“(It) is wonderful. It was something that was really beneficial to everyone; there was no downside to it other than that it was interpreted as being illegal,” he said. “We will approach local restaurants and ask them to participate” on the basis that any wine bought from a Washington tasting room—with receipt of purchase for that same day—would be allowed served corkage-free.

While the program will be open with respect to wineries, respecting tied-house laws, Conway sees the program—and others like it in the state— as benefitting local wineries the most. “You’re not going to get people in Seattle buying a bottle of wine at a winery, coming to Spokane during the daytime and dining at a restaurant here in Spokane that evening with a bottle of wine,” he said. “Realistically, I would suspect it’s still going to be a very local program to local areas in the state.”
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