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Virginia's Sangria Ban At Issue in 2 Hearings

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

RICHMOND, Jan. 23 -- A Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agent conducting a routine inspection in 2006 cited La Tasca Spanish Tapas Bar and Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria for violating an obscure 75-year-old state law:

It's illegal to serve sangria in Virginia.

The fruity cocktail of wine and brandy that is a must-have at Spanish restaurants violates a law that forbids mixing wine or beer with spirits. If convicted, a bartender could go to jail for a year.

"It's absolutely preposterous," said Robert Hall, general manager of Jaleo restaurant in Crystal City, which altered its sangria recipe last year after hearing the news about La Tasca. "What harm is this causing?"

The General Assembly, which began a 60-day legislative session this month, is considering whether to tweak the antiquated law to allow restaurants and bars to serve sangria made of more than wine.

A House subcommittee is scheduled to debate the bill Thursday.

"It just seems to make common sense that government should worry about big issues like transportation and not get too concerned about what people drink," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who introduced the bill.

Since 1934, just after the national prohibition of alcohol was repealed, Virginia has had laws that prohibit mixing wine or beer with spirits and pre-mixing a drink with alcohol.

"We're a little nervous of expanding the law," said House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), who served for 16 years on a committee that wrote alcohol laws. "We're a conservative state and a conservative legislature. Some of that's good. Some of it's bad."

The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not keep statistics on sangria citations, but officials estimate they have given out a handful in recent years.

Curtis Coleburn, the agency's chief operating officer, said his agents usually warn restaurants that they cannot serve sangria and other drinks that include wine or beer and spirits. But the agents generally do not cite them, because most do not know it is illegal.

Sangria is usually made with red wine, brandy and fruit. Other recipes call for additional liquors, such as vodka.

Hall said Jaleo changed the recipe for sangria at its Crystal City location, which serves up to 2,000 customers a week, but not at its District or Bethesda locations. He said some customers have noticed the difference in taste.

"It disturbs us," Hall said. "We can't offer real sangria."

It's not just sangria. Other popular drinks are also off-limits, including kir royals, which are made with sparkling wine, and boilermakers, which include beer and a shot of liquor. Also prohibited are a host of newly fashionable beer cocktails, but Ebbin's bill allows only sangria.

"It was something that caught us off guard. It is not something that has been on the radar for us," said Barrett Hardiman, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents about 1,100 restaurants in the state. "A lot of people are surprised. . . . It seems archaic to us."

Many of Virginia's ABC laws haven't changed since 1934, when the nation's attitude toward alcohol was different.

"They wanted to encourage people to drink less-intoxicating beverages," Coleburn said.

The state prohibits combining wine or beer and spirits and pre-mixing or storing drinks outside their original containers, except for those in approved frozen-drink dispensers.

Officials say the goal is to show customers that they are getting what they asked for and to show regulators that the alcohol has been purchased from the state, as is required in Virginia.

Violating the sangria code is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine or 12 months in jail.

La Tasca was charged with four violations Dec. 5, 2006, and fined $2,000, according to ABC documents. The case is not resolved because the restaurant is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday at ABC offices in Richmond.

Restaurant officials did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.

Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) helped pass a law a few years ago when he served in the House on behalf of Korean restaurants that wanted to serve the traditional drink soju, a beverage made of sweet distilled alcohol.

"Sometimes I feel in Virginia we're still working off a prohibition mentality," Petersen said. "The rigid construct of state laws is not reflective of modern times."

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