Margaret Shepard  | June 23, 2014

A Seattle Winery Sets Out to Change the Landscape

Seattle’s laws governing wine have long been a source of consternation in the city’s business community. Paul Beveridge aims to do something about it.

With 22 years of experience as an environmental attorney under his belt, Beveridge heads the Family Wineries of Washington State, an organization that advocates for wine law reform in Washington’s capital city. His work lobbying the state is in many ways personal and, considering his last name, fortuitous.

“Yes, that is my last name,” Beveridge joked, adding that he and his wife “didn’t set out to change laws. We just wanted to have a winery and a restaurant.”

That winery is Wilridge Winery, which Beveridge, who dreamed of being a winemaker, started in 1988 with his wife, a chef who wanted to open her own restaurant. Their shared dream, inspired by their European travel, was to open real French-style bistro in an old house in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle, where the Wilridge Winery still stands to this day. Though they initially planned to both make and sell the wine in the same building, the husband and wife duo were soon bogged down by what Paul describes as Seattle’s cumbersome bureaucracy.

“We started to research the legality of having a winery and restaurant in the same establishment and realized that it was illegal,” he recalls. “We referred to the law, RCW Title 66, which was prohibitive in how it was written. It didn’t specifically state that restaurant and winery license could be combined on the same physical premises. Due to the way this law is written, stating that any activity that might increase the availability or lower the price of alcohol must be specifically approved by the legislature, we were required to get their permission to proceed. This was a process that took three years and delayed us selling our own wine!”

Unless an alcohol-related activity is expressly permitted in statute, Beveridge explained, it’s considered illegal. Operating under this supposition, whatever is not explicitly allowed is therefore prohibited.  These kinds of regulations directly impacted businesses, stymying innovation and hampering sustainability efforts. Wine entrepreneurs who devised new ways to either make or sell Washington wines were required to wait for official approval from the state legislature – something that could take up to three years, Beveridge argues. State laws like this had a significant effect on Wilridge which has been thwarted in its aim to be the greenest winery in Washington State.

“It’s one of the main ways we market our products and differentiate our wine from the other 800-plus wineries in Washington State,” he explains. “When we finish the wine making process, we have left over grape skins that still contain alcohol. In Italy, these grape skins are distilled to make grappa. But in Washington State, I am not currently allowed to have a distillery at my winery. Nowhere does the statute expressly state that I can hold a winery license and a distillery license at the same premise. I am stuck using the spent grape skins for compost in our vineyard instead of creating a valuable product from the waste.“

Another way that Wilridge focuses on green innovation is with their bottling process. According to Beveridge, approximately 75% of a bottle of wine’s total carbon footprint comes from the energy required to melt the bottle, with the remaining 25% stemming from transportation-related energy expenditures.

“We use a very thin bottle to reduce weight,” he says. “But we got to thinking: Why should we melt a bottle to recycle it when we could simply wash, sanitize, and refill it at less than one-tenth the carbon impact?”

Drawing from his experience in Europe, where wine bottles are reused instead of melted for recycling, Beveridge wanted to similarly reduce the Wilridge carbon footprint and encourage customers to reuse the bottles. This proved challenging, however, given Washington’s regulatory climate. “Nowhere does the statute say a bottle can be washed for refilling, so it has been illegal in Washington since Prohibition,” he says.

Again, the Beveridge’s were forced to go to the legislature to try to get permission to start recycling wine bottles. Armed with his background in law, Beveridge devoted many hours to research and was ultimately able to get the attorney general’s office involved. Essentially, the winemaking team argued that the statute does not specifically authorize a winery to fill a brand new bottle in the first place. This was a key example, and a turning point, in the fight for getting the laws updated.

The Board was persuaded by Beveridge’s argument and voted to change its policy on refilling bottles. When he first set out, Beveridge simply wanted to have a winery and a restaurant on the same premise. Now, though, he was fighting a much larger battle that had far-reaching ramifications. Wilridge was able to produce the first wine kegs and refillable bottles in Washington since Prohibition, which spurred several competitors to follow suit. Now, you can find fine Washington wines on tap at restaurants and bars throughout the state.

But the battle isn’t over for Beveridge, who is still fighting for change. Even the updated law is flawed, as it only allows for refillable bottles to be reused at wineries and not bars and restaurants.

“This interpretation of the statute by the Liquor Board has delayed, hindered, or prevented economic growth and environmental innovation in the wine, beer, and spirits industry in Seattle,” Beveridge says. “The loser under the Liquor Board’s current interpretation is the wine consumer. The price of wine is artificially inflated, selection is reduced, and the total market is kept artificially small.”

Though there’s lots of work still to be done, if anyone is up for the challenge, it’s Beveridge.