The sommelier and the wine cops

A law passed in the 1930s catches a wine event promoter at a charity event. Discerning the harm in his actions takes a very fine nose.
A law passed in the 1930s catches a wine event promoter at a charity event. Discerning the harm in his actions takes a very fine nose.

Washington state'ꀙs archaic wine regulations have stung a well-known Seattle wine events promoter for his role in organizing an event last month (March) to raise money for a breast cancer support group. The state Liquor Control Board has taken disciplinary action against sommelier David LeClaire, of Wine Events & Promotions, who organizes wine-centered social and charitable gatherings in the Seattle area.

On March 15, LeClaire helped put together a wine-tasting fundraiser at the Westin Hotel Seattle for Gilda'ꀙs Club, the national cancer-patient support group named after the late comic Gilda Radner. The club had obtained a one-day wine license from the state for its Bags & Bottles event, featuring auctions of used designer and celebrity-owned purses.

LeClaire lined up 24 wineries that each paid $75 to pour tastes of wine and sell bottles at the event. It'ꀙs the third year he'ꀙs done this for the charity, which grossed $25,000 this year, said Anna Gottlieb, the club'ꀙs executive director in Seattle. The club paid him a flat fee for his services, and he made all the winery arrangements and pocketed the winery fees.

According to Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith, one winery complained to the board about being asked to pay to pour at the fundraiser. That led to an investigation. The Liquor Control Board determined that LeClaire had violated the state 'ꀜtied-house'ꀝ law, which was passed in the 1930s after the repeal of Prohibition to prevent organized crime and large breweries from tying together and dominating production, distribution, and retail sales of alcohol.

The state Legislature has just passed legislation modestly rewriting and relaxing the 74-year old law that keeps those three tiers of the wine and beer business strictly separate. The rules have gotten in the way of various types of wine entrepreneurship. For instance, many budding Washington winemakers have had to obtain special exemptions from the Legislature to make wine if they also owned an interest in a business that served alcohol or if they wanted to open a tasting room. One part of the law prohibits wine and beer producers and distributors from giving retailers anything of value to induce the retailers to stock their brands.

LeClaire, a charming fellow who bears no resemblance to Al Capone, fell afoul of this dusty tied-house law. His sin, according to Smith, was that on behalf of the 'ꀜretail'ꀝ licensee — in this case Gilda'ꀙs Club — LeClaire received $75 from each of the participating wineries, or producers. That still would not be allowed under the new legislation, which hasn'ꀙt yet been signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The bill only allows giving items of nominal value, like corkscrews and T-shirts.

The Liquor Control Board enforcement officer'ꀙs report said that Gilda'ꀙs Club did not know that LeClaire received the money from the wineries. LeClaire declined to comment for this article.

Gilda's Club's Gottlieb said she was 'ꀜa little surprised'ꀝ when she found out about the winery payments to LeClaire but wasn'ꀙt bothered. LeClaire, she said, was upfront when she asked him about it; he indicated that having wineries pay an entry fee is standard practice. The winery representatives seemed happy to be there pouring and selling their wines, she said. 'ꀜI run a charity, I know nothing about the wine laws,'ꀝ she said. 'ꀜI'ꀙd like to know why that law was written. If the wineries knew it was illegal, why were they paying it?'ꀝ

LeClaire'ꀙs punishment was having to pay back the $75 — which presumably covered his time and costs — to each of the 24 wineries. He and Seattle attorney Paul Beveridge, an anti-wine regulation activist who owns Wilridge Winery, have requested a meeting with the Liquor Control Board to discuss the issue, Smith said.

So, you might ask, what public harm did LeClaire wreak with these $75 payments from the wineries? That'ꀙs a 'ꀜgood question,'ꀝ Smith acknowledged, but he said he was not in a position to answer it. It'ꀙs really more of an industry-related issue, he explained. Wineries were being asked to pay for access, and that'ꀙs not allowed under the law — even for the sake of breast cancer patients.

Beveridge, who heads a group called Family Wineries of Washington State that is pushing for broad deregulation of the wine business, said LeClaire'ꀙs situation demonstrates why the state needs to reform the law. 'ꀜDavid shouldn'ꀙt be harassed" by the Liquor Control Board, Beveridge said. 'ꀜHe should be supported because he'ꀙs supporting Washington agriculture, small wineries, and charities. Why is the board wasting resources on non-issues like this when there are bad bars to police in Pioneer Square?'ꀝ

Beveridge noted that at this Saturday'ꀙs Taste Washington event in Seattle, the Washington Wine Commission also is charging wineries to participate. 'ꀜHow can the Wine Commission charge and not private entrepreneurs? There'ꀙs no difference.'ꀝ

Asked about the LeClaire situation, Jean Leonard, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, the state'ꀙs main winery lobbying group, said her group is aware of some issues around special occasion licenses as in the Gilda'ꀙs Club case and that it is looking at whether regulatory changes are needed.


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