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Uncorked

Lawrence Pierce
Ted Armbrecht III checks his inventory at The Wine Shop in the Capitol Market.

CHARLESTON, W.Va -- If you enjoy wine, West Virginia is a great place to call home, according to one group. Just how good seems to be a matter of opinion.

The American Wine Consumer Coalition ranked the Mountain State 12th in its 2012 Wine Consumer State-By-State Report Card, awarding West Virginia a 'B' grade for wine consumer friendliness.

"You guys are doing well," said Tom Wark, executive director for the AMWCC. "People have outstanding access to wine in West Virginia."

West Virginians can have wine shipped to them from a winery or retailer either in-state or out-of-state. Wine is sold on Sundays, and is sold through private stores. Grocery stores and gas stations can sell wines. The coalition ranks all of those as positives.

"With one notable exception, West Virginia law is very friendly to wine consumers," the report said.

That exception, according to the report, is that West Virginia restaurants don't allow patrons to bring their own wine into the restaurants to enjoy with their meals.

Some local restaurateurs question whether that's true - even though a spokesman for the state alcohol commission says it is.

"As far as laws and stuff, everything that I've come up with is a complete gray area," said Noah Miller, owner of Noah's Eclectic Bistro in downtown Charleston.

Miller has allowed patrons to bring in their own bottle of wine since he opened. At first, he charged a $5 corkage fee, "just to be nice and trying to get people in the door." The corkage fee has since increased to $15.

"It's good to have the option," he said. "It hasn't hurt me at all."

Miller said it's all about the food and the wine that goes right with it. He wants his patrons to have access to the wine they want to enjoy with their meal. He added the restaurant keeps a rotating wine list of about 22 wines, but said there are wines that he can't get.

"The concept is for someone who has a wine cellar or someone who has an understanding or appreciation for wine or for someone who had a nice bottle of wine gifted to them," Miller said of allowing patrons to bring their own wine.

Ted Armbrecht III, who owns and operates The Wine Shop at the Capitol Market in Charleston, has been in the wine business for 16 years. He also thinks patrons should be allowed to bring their own wine to restaurants.

"As far as a corkage fee, yes the state should allow that," Armbrecht said. "It's absurd that they don't."

He acknowledged that allowing the practice would help his business.

"The pricing is going to be better for the customer if they buy it off premise and take it in," Armbrecht said. "Being on my side of the business where I see what wholesale prices are, what you pay at the restaurant to me is pretty crazy. The mark-up is huge."

Miller added as far as wine is concerned with meals, it should not be about the money.

"Instead of giving me $200 for the $90 bottle of wine, you can end up paying me $110 to enjoy the same nice bottle of wine," Miller said.

He added if a restaurant needed to make a certain amount of money for every bottle that comes in, they could just set the corkage fee to that amount to ensure their business won't be hurt.

Other Charleston eateries also let patrons bring their own wines for a corkage fee. Laury's restaurant, located in the historic C&O railroad depot, has a $25 corkage fee. Bridge Road Bistro in South Hills does the same.

Gig Robinson, spokesman for the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, said his agency has no opinion on BYOB and corkage fee practices in restaurants -- but under current law it is still illegal.

"It is kind of confusing but every state is different," Robinson said. "Whatever change there is (in law) the ABCA is committed to honoring that and changing administrative rules."

There has been no action taken by the West Virginia legislature to change the law so far, Robinson said. 

Neighboring Virginia changed its laws in 2011 to allow patrons to bring wines into restaurants. Maryland also allows the practice.

"If it [patrons bringing wine into restaurants] is going on, we're not saying it doesn't happen, but it is not permissible," Robinson said.

West Virginia's law does allow consumers to re-cork wine purchased from a restaurant during a meal and place it a WVABAC approved sealable wine bag to go. The law also allows a licensee to pay a $100 licensee fee and sell two sealed bottles of wine to go for patrons who enjoyed a wine they had with their meal, Robinson said.

Overall, wine drinkers seem to have it pretty good here. 

"Wine drinkers in West Virginia have as good of access to the marketplace of wine as any other state in the country," Wark said. Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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