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Tied-House rules are the foundation of the U.S. wine industry regulations, at both federal and state level. They permeate every activity that involves the commercial making, importing, distribution, sale and consumption of wine. As antiquated as they are, the federal and state licensing bodies still oversee their adherence as rigidly as a feudal lord once managed his fiefdom.

Despite that, Tied-House violations that relate to “providing something of benefit”, from a wholesaler to a retailer, seem to occur frequently, judging by the number of issues I observe or have brought to my attention by questioning clients. It’s not surprising, really. With the proliferation of social media in general, and wineries and importers who are using social media to promote their wines, in particular, this very public arena is fraught with risk. Additionally, the law isn’t all that clear until you run afoul of it. And then it’s often too late.

Wine Tasting sign

Although this is a confusing subject for most, I thought the media attention given last year to a rash of offenses relating to a wine tasting event in Sacramento, CA, sufficiently addressed it. News outlets reported on it, as did several blogs. But I’m still seeing clear Tied-House violations in tweets, Facebook posts and, at least in theory, in the questions from clients. So, perhaps another explanation won’t go amiss.

Before we get into that, let’s run through a brief refresher of the Tied-House definition and the restrictions that apply to the U.S. wine industry. I think it will help relate it to ways in which it can be breached.

Tied-House originally referred historically to England’s public houses – pubs, as they’re more commonly known – and their tied relationships with breweries, requiring them to buy a significant percentage of their beer from a particular brewery. This could be because the brewery owned the pub, rented the business to the pub or had invested in some way that gave them an advantage in this relationship – the crux of this problem. In some cases, this resulted in a disproportionate number of pubs in an area restricting their beer options to the consumer and became an opportunity to control pricing. In other words, the breweries with the greatest financial clout could control what the customer drank and at what price.

In the U.S. the familiar practice in England was transferred to the new world as they established saloons, and continued until Prohibition (1920-1933). In Europe, tied-house relationships weren’t a good idea, but tradition and convention served to keep the peace. In the new world, it was a really bad idea. It was virtually an unregulated free-for-all, with rampant violence and corruption.  Upon Prohibition’s repeal, when alcohol consumption was legal again, the U.S. government decided to learn from past mistakes and enact laws that prohibited “tied houses” and prevent the vertical integration of wholesale and retail business.

The result of all this is that wholesale entities – wineries, distributors, importers – cannot own retail entities – restaurants, bars or retail alcohol shops. There are loopholes in California these days, particularly to allow for online sales, but essentially this is the law.

Tied-House laws exist in almost every state in some form or another. In the case of California, where I reside and the recent cases occurred, the California Alcoholic Beverage Control, the regulating and licensing body, told me it has limited resources and actually don’t actively seek out violators. They don’t have to; according to the CA ABC, a large distributor or two is doing the job for them by calling their attention to infractions from their competitors. Whatever the case, it is certainly considered a serious offence by the CA ABC and dealt with accordingly through either fines, probation, suspension or revocation of license.

Instead of becoming mired in quotes from statutes and codes, which are available at state alcohol regulation websites, I’d rather distill the essentials into something a lot simpler. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • The phrase “nothing of value” can be given to a retailer from a wholesaler is the bedrock of Tied-House rules.
  • This means no mention of a retailer by a wholesaler in a tweet of a retail event promoted by the event itself or another party. An example, “come and try our wines at XXX wine bar on May 16th”.
  • No photo of an event on Facebook, or on a blog or a website, either before or after the event, if the name of the place is mentioned or any signage is visible. Even if nothing is said, if the retail establishment can be identified in your photo it is a violation.
  • No mention of any retail account in a tweet (e.g.) to indicate that you’ve sold to the account, plan on selling to them, or that the wines can be found at this account now or in the future. For example, you cannot say, “We’re proud to have our wines in XXX store” or “If you’ve been having trouble finding our wines, they will soon be available at XXX store”.
  • No mention of XXX store loving the wine. For example, “Joe, at XXX store, said this is the best NZ Sauvignon Blanc he’s tasted all year” or “Cheryl, at XXX wine bar, loves the new vintage of our Syrah”.
  • No mention of a tasting you’ve done, or a photo of a tasting, if it’s at a retail location. The retailer may not even be carrying your wine, but if the event is a retail location, which is now tweeted or posted to potential followers, it is considered providing something of value to the retailer, thereby establishing a de facto favorable relationship between wholesaler and retailer.
  • No retweet by the wholesaler of a tweet by another party to promote an event at which the wholesaler’s wines will be poured or sold.

To round this out, many states do allow something “of value” to be given to the retailer in the form of product displays, samples and signage, but TTB (Alcohol Tobacco Tax Bureau) defines these as items that are specifically for the promotion of alcohol that is bought by the store. It is not intended as an inducement to favor placement for the wholesaler and cannot be greater than $300 in value.

Today, promotion of wine is ubiquitous on the internet and every wholesaler must be familiar with Tied-House regulations to understand how they can do so legally. If you are engaged in social media for your winery, wholesale distribution or importing business, before you post that photo, tweet that tweet or comment on your website, consider whether you are in fact promoting a retailer in the process, even seemingly innocuously and tangentially.