A Cork in the Road: Local regs push Tekle away from pouring samples.
A Cork in the Road: Local regs push Tekle away from pouring samples. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

To host a wine tasting in D.C., you have to have class—a Class A retail liquor license, to be precise. Steve Tekle is strictly Class B, with a license that’s typically used to sell PBR, not pinot noir. He’d love to move up a rung, but thanks to current law—a product of the best efforts of the tonier shops—he can’t.

Since 2006, the 37-year-old owner of U Street Wine and Beer has been collecting signatures from customers who support his efforts to host tastings. He now has about 500. His U Street neighbors want the tastings, he says, and he should know—he’s been keeping a close eye on the rapidly changing community for years. An Ethiopian native, Tekle moved to the United States from Sweden in 1999. Two years later, he opened his first U Street business, a dollar store called Dollar Station at 1320 U St. NW. In 2002, the Bowie, Md., resident began renting a former body shop across the street, at 1351 U St. NW.

His first step was to transform the space into a convenience store called U Mini Mart. But his neighbors soon wanted more than salty snacks and cigarettes. “The people living around, they would come in and they would ask for beer and wine,” he says. In 2004, he bought a Class B beer and wine retailer’s license. “The demand was strong,” he says, and U Street was booming. A new luxury residence, the Ellington Apartments, sprouted next door. Pricey restaurants moved in across the street, and offbeat boutiques popped up around the corner. “I started changing what we carry,” he says.

At first Tekle sold what he calls “everyday” wine, bottles priced around $10. “Now I have the expensive ones,” he says—his priciest wine retails for $29. Because his customers came from all over the country, he began selling beers from craft brewers like New York’s Brooklyn Brewery and Oregon’s Rogue Ales. He also has a case of Belgian brews. He even asked chefs for advice about which wines to carry and kept a notebook by the cash register to write down customer suggestions. Sometimes his neighbors brought in empty beer and wine bottles for him to look at.

Tekle also decided to change the décor. He covered the concrete floors with wood, painted the walls, and removed the garage door in front. He installed oak shelves and began stocking them with wines culled from customers’ recommendations. His liquor license allowed him to open at 10 a.m., but he never opened before 1 p.m.—he didn’t want morning drinkers to frequent his store. And he doesn’t do single sales. “I don’t want to sell those single beers because it’s not good for the neighborhood if you have single beers,” he says. Of course, he could make more money if he did, Tekle says, but “for me, it’s a question of morals. I want to clean the area.…That’s my commitment to the community.”

Even the local advisory neighborhood commission, often the bane of small liquor stores, has praised him. “He’s upgraded the wine and made the store more attractive,” commissioner Philip Spalding says. “He’s making a better store all the time.”

But he still can’t host a wine tasting or even serve a sample. In 2006, Tekle called the city’s alcohol administration to apply for a wine-tasting permit. The agency told him that, given his license class, hosting a tasting would be against the law. D.C. allows only full-service supermarkets and Class A-licensed stores (which sell beer, wine, and spirits) to receive tasting permits.

According to former alcohol administration spokesperson Jeff Coudriet, it’s a distinction that dates back decades and resulted from fierce lobbying efforts by A-licensed stores. “It definitely was an industry battle,” he says. “The A stores just didn’t want to give up the exclusivity of the market.” Plus, he says, B-licensed stores that want to host wine tastings are a relatively new phenomenon. “Your general B store just wasn’t in that market,” he says. “Who’s going to a B store to buy wine for a wedding?…What were they going to have tastings for, Thunderbird?”

But times are changing, and as gentrification swallows larger swaths of the city, other corner stores may want to climb the class ladder, too. “There never was, before the last 10 to 15 years, B licenses where their sole purpose was to sell wine,” says attorney Michael Fonseca, who represents a coalition of A-licensed stores called the Washington DC Retail Liquor Dealers Association. “It used to be incidental.…We’re at a different point in time now.”

Fonseca says the association he represents “might not oppose” tasting permits for B-licensed gourmet wine stores as long as any decision was made “after public notice.” Already, says Coudriet, “there are a couple B stores that are very nice that could probably pull it off.” Spalding says it’s those B stores that will prosper. “The days of roll-down grates and bars in the windows are going away. The business that will support the new population that’s moving in is the business that will succeed,” he says.

Tekle says he would have better success with tastings. “I can sell $8, $9 [bottles] easy, but when it comes to $19, they ask me if they can taste it,” he says. He investigated dropping his B license altogether and applying for an A, but Bestway Liquors, located at 2011 14th St. NW, holds an A license, and D.C. code forbids two or more A licenses within 400 feet. (Bestway is 305 feet away, Tekle says). He could also transform his wine shop into a full-service grocery store like Whole Foods or Safeway (which are permitted to serve wine samples) but then he would be forced to limit his liquor sales to 15 percent. And that would kill business. “I had eggs here, and those products didn’t sell,” he says.

His only other option, says Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration director Maria Delaney, is to seek legislative intervention. “It would require a change in the law,” she says.

Still, allowing tastings at beer and wine stores might be controversial for some communities. Paul Pascal, an attorneywho represents several B-licensed shops, says that traditionally “a lot of the corner stores that have B licenses are perceived as problem places.” And distinguishing between those stores could be difficult, says Fonseca. “When do you become a gourmet wine shop versus a neighborhood convenience store that may be considered a problem?” he asks.

Regardless, Tekle isn’t giving up. He’s going to re-apply for a tasting permit and continue campaigning with the neighborhood. “I want to upgrade,” he says. “This is the way I change the area.”

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