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Several D.C. bar and restaurant owners spoke out at a public hearing yesterday voicing their concerns about a part of a proposed bill handed down by Mayor Muriel Bowser in October 2017. It backtracks on specifics about a 2015 order that stipulated what businesses holding wine pub endorsements could and could not sell for off-premise consumption. If the bill passes as is, businesses such as ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar and Cork Wine Bar & Market could find themselves struggling to pay the bills.
The 2015 order from Alcoholic Beverage Control Board made it possible for businesses with a wine pub endorsement to sell any brand of wine or cider in closed containers for off-premises consumption. To-go sales weren’t to be limited to the booze the bar or restaurant produces itself. This was welcome news for a few operators getting ready to launch new businesses in the District, including ANXO.
“I decided I wanted to build a business around this model,” says ANXO Co-owner Sam Fitz. “As most wine making and heritage cider production is seasonal, it would be quite difficult to afford a pub license if we are out of wine or cider for many months and have to cease all to-go sales.”
After the ruling, he took out a $1 million loan and opened the ANXO in Truxton Circle in 2016. Then he took out about half as much money to open the Brightwood Park Tasting Room. “Both locations’ business models were built completely around this ruling, and we’ve been operating this way since day one.”
Cork Wine Bar & Market, which recently combined its restaurant and market under one roof, also holds a wine pub endorsement. Proprietors Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts determined that part of their next chapter would including making wine.
But the proposed bill introduced in October strips away the ability for a wine pub license holder to sell wine or cider they do not produce for off-premise consumption. Both Fitz and Gross were at the hearing yesterday in front from Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s committee, which is tasked with overseeing the bill through the legislative process.
In addition to voicing his concerns, Fitz submitted written commentary. “Revoking the hard-earned right of wine pubs to sell any wine to-go would be unduly detrimental to some of D.C.’s most unique businesses and young entrepreneurs,” he writes.
“It would force us to close the entire store,” Gross says. The first floor of Cork Wine Bar & Market is a retail shop selling wines from around the world. “We’re upset because we changed our whole business model based on the law and the license as it was. Essentially, if it were to pass it would decrease revenue by one third and put us out of business.”
Gross is disappointed that there’s no talk of grandfathering in existing wine pub endorsement holders. “For them to do this retroactively, I was quite distraught when I found out,” she says. Fitz agrees that at a minimum, those holding existing wine pub endorsements should be grandfathered in, not given a year to comply to the new bill, if passed.
Fitz suspects lawmakers are concerned that restaurants would add wine-pub endorsements and essentially become restaurant-bottle shop hybrids without ever producing any wine or cider. They may be interested in preserving the “three-tier system” of alcohol manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers. “I understand what ABRA is trying to prevent, and I do not disagree with their objective,” he says. “However, both ANXO and Cork are not only currently operating within the law, they are doing so after specifically asking for an opinion on their operation.”
“That’s why there’s not a Bud Light Tavern on every corner,” Gross explains.
McDuffie has been supportive of ANXO in the past. “I cannot stress enough how amazing he has been to our producers,” Fitz says. “I had two issues even bigger than this that he helped me work out directly with ABRA a few months ago that were even more important,” he says. “I have full confidence the Council will at least honor our businesses by giving us an exception to any change that goes against how we are currently operating. With that said, Diane and I have so much on the line that we cannot yet rest easy.”
Councilmember McDuffie provided the following statement:
“I am proud of my record on the Council to create the regulatory framework that has allowed breweries, distilleries, and wine pubs to operate and flourish in DC. I appreciate stakeholders coming out to express their concerns at yesterday’s hearing and I heard them loud and clear. That is why I made sure to get a commitment from Director Moosally to take those concerns back to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, and return to the committee with recommendations. Upon receiving those recommendations, I look forward to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to craft a piece of legislation that both the government and industry can support.”