Last July, the landscape changed radically for small Virginia wineries. No, the rolling hills didn’t flatten. Instead, the wineries lost the right to put cases of their own Viognier in their own trucks and drive them down to the local grocery store. Now State Delegate Chris Saxman of Staunton wants to reinstate that right for wineries that would self-distribute 3,000 cases or fewer per year.
If legislators pass a proposed law, the wee wineries of Virginia might get to bypass the wholesaler and once again haul vino their own damn selves.
Saxman’s bill is a toned-down version of one he introduced in 2006, which would have allowed each winery to self-distribute up to 100,000 cases. That bill was tabled, and Saxman says this one (which is co-sponsored by State Senator John Watkins) is designed both to be taken more seriously by the wholesalers’ lobby and to allow new wineries to grow their businesses to the point where hiring a distributor might be helpful rather than burdensome. “This allows the vineyards to create their markets, so all the wholesaler has to do is be the delivery boy”—rather than fledging wineries trying to break into a difficult wholesale market from the beginning, says Saxman.
Many winemakers would be relieved to regain distribution rights. (The Virginia Wineries Association even honored Saxman as Legislator of the Year in 2006.) Patricia Reeder is an owner of Burnley Vineyards in Barboursville. Though she says her business’s age (30 years) and her own age (mid-70s) actually made hiring a distributor last July a welcome change, she believes the bill would help startups. “A new winery doesn’t have their name out there, they don’t have any shelf recognition, and in the wine stores they’re not going to get shelf space because no one knows who they are,” she says.
Saxman has high hopes for his bill, citing support from the Farm Bureau, the League of Conservation Voters and other groups. “Last year was the year of Don Quixote,” he says. “This is the year of consensus.”