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Virginia Wine Legislation and Sales Issues

Virginia Wine Legislation and Sales Issues

Mar 12, 2015

Although Virginia is now one of the largest wine producing areas in the United States, Virginia’s wine industry has experienced its share of struggles from colonial times to the present. Throughout its history, much of the financial success of Virginia’s wine industry has depended on favorable government regulations permitting the production, sales and consumption of wine. Beginning with the goal of the first Jamestown settlers to produce fine wines to send back to the Old World, winemakers throughout Virginia’s history have looked to produce world class wine. Both their successes and their failures can be linked in many ways to federal and state regulation of Virginia’s wine industry.

Wine Production and Sales in Colonial Virginia

Because Virginia’s earliest settlers sought to produce goods to send back to the Old World for financial revenue, Jamestown’s first government assembly passed legislation encouraging the colonists to produce and sell wines. Called Act 12, the law required all settlers to plant grapes for wine production. Influential early leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson attempted to plant vineyards and produce wine in Virginia. These early attempts at winemaking were met with varying degrees of success due to the effects of harsh weather conditions and disease. The first Virginia wine to gain acclamation was a wine produced from Norton grapes, which was recognized at the 1880 Paris Exposition.

The Prohibition Era and Virginia Blue Laws

The Civil War and the subsequent beginnings of prohibition sentiment brought an end to Virginia’s early wine production. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting alcohol production and sales in the United States effectively ended all winemaking efforts in Virginia, and no known vineyards survived this era of Virginia’s history. Though the repeal of the amendment was passed in 1933, Virginia’s wine industry didn’t begin to recover until the 1970s. The number of vineyards in Virginia increased from less than six in 1979 to over 92 registered vineyards in 2005. As Virginia’s wine production began to dramatically increase, so-called “blue laws” continued to restrict wine production and sales in the state. These Prohibition-era laws restricted sales on Sundays and the shipment of wine to other states. They also placed limitations on several other areas of the wine industry, such as advertising and consumption.

The Farm Winery Act of 1980

In 1980, the enactment of the Virginia Farm Winery Law eased the restrictions on wine sales for “farm wineries” to encourage brisk growth. This law granted extensive retail sales privileges to farm wineries growing more than 51% of the grapes used in their wine production. It also created the positions of State Viticulturalist and State Enologist. The creation of these positions greatly encouraged the advancement of winemaking knowledge and techniques in Virginia’s wine country.

Virginia Wineries and Current Regulations

As Virginia wines have gained recognition and won accolades, the state has gradually passed legislation to ease the restrictions placed on the wine industry. Wine can now be purchased on Sundays in most counties in Virginia, and legislation has been passed to reduce the limitations on sales and shipment. However, certain remaining regulations can still complicate wine sales, shipment and licensing in the state. For example, advertising for happy hour specials is restricted, and sales on happy hour specials are limited to the hours before 9 p.m. Retail establishments are not allowed to display advertisements for alcoholic beverages in their windows or other exterior areas.

Recent legislation has restricted wine wholesalers and distributors from making presentations, including wine tastings and wine dinners, at retail establishments. Because this limitation has reduced wine sales by as much as six percent for many wine producers, several lawmakers are working to draft legislation to ease the restriction. Governor Bob Wilson also believes that these restrictions are damaging to the growth of Virginia’s wine industry. He hopes to soon draft language to ease these restrictions.

The policies of Governor Wilson and other current officials have been favorable to the growth of Virginia’s wine industry. As Virginia’s wine country continues to establish itself as one of the premiere wine producing areas in the United States, winemakers hope that the legislation of government officials will continue to promote the Virginia wine industry.