Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why am I the Bad Guy?

Earlier this week, a customer brought in two bottles of wine and wanted us to open them and even offered to pay us a corkage fee. His issue: he's allergic to sulfites and this was wine that he made himself to guarantee that he has sulfite-free wine to drink. Unfortunately, to comply with the law in Virginia, we had to refuse to open the bottles, which just makes us look like money-grubbing jerks.

Even though we explained that Virginia law forbids bring-your-own, we still look like jerks. Although the customer was a pretty good sport, I could tell that he was hurt. Here are my shackles, straight from the Code of Virginia:

§ 4.1-315. Possession without license to sell alcoholic beverages upon premises of restaurant; exceptions; penalty.

A. No alcoholic beverages shall be kept or allowed to be kept upon any premises or upon the person of any proprietor or person employed upon the premises of a restaurant or other place where food or refreshments of any kind are furnished for compensation, except such alcoholic beverages as such person owning or operating such place of business is licensed to purchase and to sell at such place of business.

Rather wordy, and by the time that you decipher from the rest of the Code who you're licensed to buy from and what you're licensed to sell, the bottom line is if you didn't purchase from the Commonwealth or from a licensed wholesaler, you can't even have it on premises, let alone serve it.

The obvious fallout from this is that for a special occasion for one of my customers, let's say a tenth wedding anniversary, the customer wants to bring in the bottle of wine that he purchased during his honeymoon for this very occasion, I am forced to be the jerk and refuse to allow the wine on premises. And while I'm not a big fan of customers bringing their own wine to my restaurant, this is another case in which I would very dearly love to make an exception.

The less obvious fallout is that I can't build a decent wine list of old vintages. The major wine destination restaurants not located in Virginia are largely free to bid on older wines at auction and build their cellars that way, or even more directly, by purchasing private cellars. How have restaurants in Virginia have accomplished this? Let's just say that it didn't happen legally. This is why you don't see any old Bordeaux on my list.

This situation is not likely to change. The major vested parties—the Commonwealth, the wholesalers, and restaurants—are just that, they're vested in the system. The Commonwealth wants its guaranteed tax revenue, the wholesalers want to keep restaurants purchasing only from them, and the restaurants largely want to sell wine, not let people bring in their own.

I'd love to be able to say yes more often to my customers, but instead, I come off as the bad guy. I just hope that through posting this, more people recognize that my hands are tied legally.

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