Author Archives: Suzanne Nicholson

Ninth Circuit revisits Actmedia: Heightened Scrutiny Applies to B&P Code Advertising Restrictions

Thirty years ago, the Ninth Circuit rejected a First Amendment challenge to a California statute which prohibits paid advertising of alcoholic beverages at retail outlets. In Actmedia Inc. v. Stroh (9th Cir. 1986) 830 F.2d 957, the court applied the four-pronged test of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980) 447 U.S. 557 to assess the constitutionality of a law that burdened commercial speech. That test asks: (1) whether the speech concerns a lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) whether the government has a substantial interest in regulating the speech; (3) whether the regulation serves to directly advance the asserted governmental interest; and (4) whether the regulation “is not more extensive than necessary.”

The law at issue in Actmedia was Business & Professions Code, § 25503(h), which prohibits manufacturers and wholesalers, as well as their agents, from giving anything of value to a retailer in exchange for on-site advertising. Actmedia was a corporation which leased advertising space on shopping carts. It challenged the law as an impermissible restriction on commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment. Applying the Central Hudson factors, the Ninth Circuit concluded the law was constitutional. The advertising of alcoholic beverages concerned a lawful activity and was not misleading, but California had a “substantial” interest in regulating the activities of the three “tiers” of the alcoholic beverage industry within its borders, and in promoting temperance. Section 25503(h) furthered that interest by limiting the ability of wholesalers to acquire influence over retail outlets, and by reducing the quantity of alcoholic beverage advertising in retail outlets. The court found the law was “narrowly drawn” to achieve these purposes, and not more extensive than necessary.

Since then, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc. (2011) 131 S.Ct. 2653. There, the Court held that content- or speaker-based restrictions on commercial speech are subject to “heightened judicial scrutiny” rather than the intermediate scrutiny set forth in Central Hudson. Under heightened scrutiny, the first two prongs of the analysis remain the same, but the third prong requires the government to demonstrate “that the harms it recites are real and that its restriction will in fact alleviate them to a material degree.” And under the fourth prong, the government must demonstrate that the law is specifically designed to achieve the government’s substantial interest.

In light of Sorrell, the Ninth Circuit agreed to revisit the constitutionality of section 25503(f)-(h) in the case of Retail Digital Network, LLC v. Appelsmith (2016) 810 F.3d 638. Retail Digital Network is a corporation which leases advertising space on LCD displays in retail outlets. It challenged the constitutionality of section 25503(f)-(h) after alcoholic beverage manufacturers refused to contract with it for advertising space based on fears of violating the statute. The Court found that because the statute prohibits the retail advertising of alcoholic beverages by manufacturers and wholesalers, it is both content-based and speaker-based, and must therefore survive “heightened judicial scrutiny” under Sorrell. Actmedia, which applied the intermediate scrutiny of Central Hudson, is inconsistent with Sorrell and therefore no longer controlling.

The Ninth Circuit sent Retail Digital Network back to the district court to develop the factual record and apply the proper test. And while the Ninth Circuit acknowledged the validity of the State’s interest in the three-tier system, and in promoting temperance, it also indicated the district court “should consider whether the State has shown that there is a real danger that paid advertising of alcoholic beverages would lead to vertical or horizontal integration under circumstances existing in the alcoholic beverage market today” and in the circumstance of this particular case, where payments are made not by the manufacturer or wholesaler directly, but by a third party. The court also directed the district court to consider whether section 25530(f)-(h) “materially advances” the State’s interests in light of the numerous statutory exceptions to these provisions. Finally, the court emphasized that heightened scrutiny must be provided to the question of whether the statutory provisions are “narrowly tailored” to achieve the State’s goals or whether those interests might be achieved by means other than the burdening of commercial speech.

This is definitely a case to watch, with significant implications for the advertising of alcoholic beverages in California. And whatever the district court decides, another appeal is likely to follow.


Non-Compete Agreements in California

With the proliferation of wineries in California, it’s not uncommon for an owner to find one of its winemakers deciding to leave and set up shop on their own. Is there anything you can do up front to prevent them from taking the craft they’ve honed at your winery elsewhere? The short answer is, in most cases, no. But as with almost everything in the law, there are some exceptions you should know.

California public policy strongly favors free and open competition in the marketplace. Business and Professions Code section 16600 states clearly that contractual restraints on competition or trade are void, except as otherwise provided. California courts interpreting this statute emphasize that it protects the right of Californians to pursue any business, occupation, or lawful employment of their choosing. Contract provisions which attempt to place restrictions on a person’s ability to work for a competitor, or open a competing enterprise, are generally unenforceable.

That said, you should be aware of the “as otherwise provided” part of the Code. The primary exceptions to the prohibition on non-compete agreements apply to “owners” of a business and arise in the following contexts.

First, if you are selling all of your ownership interest, or all of most of the operating assets together with the goodwill of the business, you can agree with the buyer to refrain from “carrying on a similar business within a specified geographic area” so long as the buyer is going to be carrying on the same or a similar business in that area.

Second, if you are leaving a partnership or an LLC, you can agree not to carry on a similar business within the geographic area where the business is operating.

If you fall within one of the above exceptions, you should consult with an attorney to make sure any non-compete agreement complies with California law and is narrowly tailored both in geographic scope and duration.


One Small Step: Easing Restrictions on Advertising in Social Media

On October 1, Governor Brown signed into law AB 780, which updates Business and Professions Code provisions concerning restrictions on manufacturers’ ability to identify or list on-sale or off-sale retail locations where their products are sold. The new law goes into effect January 1, 2016.

In an earlier post, “Social Media is Advertising: Know the Basics”, I warned that under then-current law, posting where your product is sold generally ran afoul of restrictions on “giving something of value” to retailers, but was allowed in response to a direct consumer inquiry, and so long as you listed more than one unaffiliated retailer.

With the passage of AB 780, wine manufacturers will no longer need to wait for a direct consumer inquiry to post the names and contact information of retailers who sell their product, so long as the listing is made, produced, or paid for exclusively by the manufacturer, includes two or more unaffiliated retailers, and does not contain any mention of retail price.

AB 780 should not be taken as an indication of the demise or weakening of California’s tied-house restrictions. AB 780 explicitly sets forth the Legislature’s finding that tied-house restrictions are both “necessary and proper… to prevent suppliers from dominating local markets through vertical integration, and to prevent excessive sales of alcoholic beverages produced by overly aggressive marketing techniques.” Nevertheless, AB 780 is a small, but important step for manufacturers, who can now feel much more secure posting where their products can be found.


TTB Update: Return of Wine to Bonded Premises

The TTB is catching up on some regulatory house-keeping. Effective October 15, 2015, TTB regulations governing the return of taxpaid wine to bonded premises will be amended to conform to provisions of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, and the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998.

The Internal Revenue Code provides that if wine is removed from bonded premises, and subsequently returned, any tax paid on the wine returned to bond shall be refunded or credited (without interest) to the proprietor of the bonded premises. If tax has not yet been paid, then any prior tax liability is relieved.

Whereas it used to be that wine returned to bond had to be “unmerchantable,” that is no longer the case under the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. The TTB is now amending its regulations to conform to that Act, by removing the word “unmerchantable” from provisions relating to the return of wine to bond.

It also used to be that wine returned to bond had to be produced in the United States. That is no longer the case, under the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. Wine returned to bond must only have first been removed from a bonded wine cellar. TTB regulations pertaining to the return of wine to bond will no longer refer to “domestic” wine or wine “produced in the United States.”

Better late than never. We can all appreciate increased clarity and consistency when it comes to the regulation of alcoholic beverages!


2015 Grape Escape – Cancelled After Vendors Refuse to Participate in Event Sponsored by Retailer

We recently posted about how social media is advertising, and the care wine manufacturers need to take to ensure they do not run afoul of state tied-house laws.

The impact of those laws is being felt locally here in Sacramento, where organizers of the “Grape Escape” – an annual showcasing of local food and wines – have canceled this year’s event which was to be held in early June. Articles about the cancellation indicate that only four wineries signed up to participate this year, down from 47 a year ago. The primary reason appears to be fears over potential citations from the ABC. Last year, eight participants were investigated and put on probation (but not fined) for mentioning the event’s retail sponsor, Save Mart, in their social media postings, or directing consumers to the retailer to purchase tickets. Because manufacturers may not give anything of value to a retailer without violating tied-house restrictions, and because advertising constitutes a thing of value, social media mentions of a retailer by a manufacturer (i.e. “advertising”) runs afoul of the law.

Wine and food events such as the Grape Escape have a long and wonderful history. It’s a shame that retail sponsorship of such events can make vendors so nervous they choose not to participate, rather than develop specific guidelines or practices to ensure their promotion of the event does not run afoul of ABC advertising restrictions. Wineries should view the ABC as a resource for ensuring their own compliance with the law, rather than an adversary, and where questions arise, seek out guidance rather than pulling the plug completely.


Going Green: Labeling Organic Wine

Labeling of wine is subject to regulation by the TTB, and requires a certificate of label approval (COLA). Basic information that must be included on all labels include the brand name, class or type of wine, alcohol content, appellation, the bottler’s name and address, contents by volume, a sulfite declaration, and the government health warning. Previously, Uncorked ran a post about font and sizing requirements, accessible here.

If you want include “organic” claims on your label, you must satisfy USDA organic regulations for production and handling of your wine. Those requirements are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say they are extensive. And, the type of “organic” claims you can make on your label are dependent upon a few key factors.

To label your wine “Organic” and to use the USDA Organic seal on your label, your wine-making operations must be overseen by a third-party accredited certifying agent (ACA) to ensure compliance with organic production and handling requirements. The yeast used in your wine, and all agricultural ingredients (i.e., grapes) must be certified organic, with the exception of those ingredients on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, information about which can be found here. Non-agricultural ingredients must be on the National List, and are limited to a certain percentage of the total product. Finally, only naturally occurring sulfites are allowed in wines with an “Organic” label. If you want to include a statement on the label that your wine contains only naturally occurring sulfites, you will need a lab analysis to back that up.

Wines with added sulfites (up to 100 ppm of sulfur dioxide) may not be labeled “Organic” or use the USDA Organic seal, but they may be labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes.” Only the grapes must be certified organic, the remaining agricultural ingredients need not be.

Labels for both “Organic” and “Made with Organic Grapes” must include the name of the certifier/ACA: “Certified organic by ***.”

If your wine doesn’t meet the criteria for “Organic” or “Made with Organic Grapes” labeling, you may still be able to list certain  ingredients as organic, but will have to submit proof of certification for each ingredient with your COLA application.

Setting your wine apart from the crowd with an organic label is great marketing. Just make sure you are current on USDA and TTB regulations before you send those labels to print!


Certified Farmers’ Market Permits: Wine Tastings Included

California winegrowers holding a Type 02 license have been able to sell their wine at farmers’ markets under a special permit (Certified Farmers’ Market Sales Permit) for some time. For a relatively nominal fee, now $50, a licensed winegrower may sell wine at a certified farmers’ market so long as the wine is (a) “produced entirely from grapes or other agricultural products grown by the winegrower” and (b) bottled by the winegrower. The permit is good for an entire year, but the winegrower may only sell wine one day a week at any given farmers’ market. A separate license is required for each certified farmers’ market at which the winegrower’s product is to be sold, but there is no limit on the number of licenses that may be held.

Annual sales for wine sold under all certified farmers’ market sales permits held by any one winegrower are limited to 5,000 gallons, and are to be reported to the ABC.

As of July 2014, the ABC also allows instructional tasting events to be held at certified farmers’ markets under this license, “subject to the authorization and managerial control” of the particular farmers’ market operator. Restrictions on instructional tasting events are as follows: (1) the event area must be separated from the rest of the market by some type of physical barrier (chain, rope, wall), with only one licensee conducting the event; (2) consumers may not leave the instructional tasting area with an open container; and (3) tastings are limited to 3 ounces per person per day.

Winegrowers undoubtedly welcome this expansion of their rights under this particular license, as it allows them to provide their potential consumers with the full farmers’ market experience of sampling the product prior to purchase.

Interestingly, as of January 1, 2015 licensed beer manufacturers are also allowed to sell their products at certified farmers’ markets, but the ABC restrictions differ from those applicable to licensed winegrowers. Most notably, tastings are not permitted, and the licensee can only sell at farmers’ markets located in the same county or an immediately adjacent county to that in which the beer manufacturer is located.