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Marc E. Sorini concentrates on issues facing the alcohol beverage industry, with a particular focus on the supplier tier and non-beverage alcohol users. He heads the Firm's Alcohol Regulatory & Distribution Group and is recognized as one of the leading lawyers in his field. Read Marc Sorini's full bio.

Two recent developments reinforce my expectation that the Supreme Court will need to clarify the scope of its 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision within the next few years.

Granholm struck down state restrictions on the interstate sale and shipment of wine by wineries, where the state permitted in-state wineries to engage in such direct-to-consumer sales activities but withheld that privilege from out-of-state wineries. According to that decision, such facially-discriminatory laws are virtually per se unconstitutional under the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause, and are not saved by the additional power that states have over alcohol sales under the 21st Amendment. The Granholm court also referred to the three-tier system as “unquestionably legitimate.”

In the years since Granholm, lower federal courts have wrestled with the question of whether or not the Commerce Clause’s non-discrimination principle is limited to state laws imposing different rules on in-state versus out-of-state producers and products. Decisions by several Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Arnold’s Wines, 2009) and the Eighth Circuit (Southern Wine, 2013), have concluded that only those state laws discriminating against out-of-state producers or products face the high level of scrutiny mandated by Granholm. Others, including the Fifth Circuit (Cooper II, 2016) and the Sixth Circuit (Byrd, 2018), have concluded that state laws regulating the wholesale- and retail-tiers remain subject to vigorous Commerce Clause scrutiny. Notably, however, the Fifth and Sixth Circuit opinions also suggest that the outcome of a challenge to a state law regulating the wholesale- or retail-tier may depend on the type of law challenged, and both involved residency requirements for licensees, not laws directly regulating the sale and shipment of alcohol. Continue Reading Son of Granholm Inches Closer

Yesterday, Customs & Border Protection (CBP) issued Guidance on the alcohol excise tax provisions contained in the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (Tax Act). Key points

  1. Importers must continue to pay the full excise tax rate (not the rates reduced by the Tax Act’s lower rates or credits) upon importation.
  2. CBP and TTB are working on regulations to allow CBP to issue refunds retroactively.
  3. In anticipation of the new regulations, CBP advises importers to file protests on liquidated entries where a reduced rate or credit may apply.
  4. CBP will not process refund requests any earlier than January 15, 2019.
  5. The Guidance includes a detailed list of information an importer will need to provide in order to substantiate its eligibility to receive reduced rates and/or credits.

Please let us know if you have any questions about this development.

Last month, the Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Four, issued an opinion in Charles v. Sutter Home Winery, Inc. (2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 418*; 2018 WL 2126987). The court considered the Plaintiffs’ appeal of their dismissed putative class action complaint brought under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as Proposition 65. The appeal challenged the adequacy of the warning label that the Defendants, a group of wine suppliers, provided on wines that contained allegedly unsafe levels of inorganic arsenic, a chemical listed by the State of California as a carcinogen and a reproductive toxicant (a “listed chemical”). In a win for the wine industry, the Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal of the case.

Proposition 65 requires that any person who knowingly and intentionally exposes another person to a “listed chemical” in the course of doing business must provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before the exposure. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the lead agency responsible for implementing Proposition 65, has adopted several “safe harbor” warning provisions deemed to satisfy Proposition 65’s requirements, including a safe harbor warning for general consumer products and one for alcohol beverages, specifically. Continue Reading California Court of Appeal Holds That “Safe Harbor” Defense Precludes Suit Based on Presence of Inorganic Arsenic in Wines

In an article published by The New Brewer, Marc Sorini discusses five issues most likely to have a meaningful impact on craft brewers in the coming years, including:

  1. The Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act’s (CBMTRA) new tiered excise tax rate structure, its extending benefits to foreign producers, and its authorization for brewers to transfer beer in bond between breweries of different ownership.
  2. The Sixth Circuit’s published opinion in Byrd v. Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, affirming a decision finding that the “durational-residency” requirements imposed by Tennessee law for alcohol beverage retail licensees are unconstitutional under the “dormant” Commerce Clause.
  3. The TTB’s creation of a new unit within its Trade Investigations Division to focus on trade practice enforcement.
  4. The opinion in Mission Beverage Co. v. Pabst Brewing Co. from the California Court of Appeals, which found that “an existing distributor’s receipt of the ‘fair market value of the affected distribution rights’ under [the California statute] does not necessarily make that distributor whole.”
  5. The US District Court for the Northern District of California’s decision in a putative class action alleging that the labeling and marketing of a successful California-based craft brewery was false and deceptive.

Access the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2018.

The Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently published a proposed rule containing regulations to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard mandated by Congress in 2016. See 83 Fed. Reg. 19860 (May 4, 2018). The proposed regulations would govern the labeling of raw agricultural products and packaged foods whose labeling is governed the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act, including wines below 7 percent alcohol by volume and non-malt beer (e.g., “hard seltzers”). The proposed regulations would not directly apply to alcohol beverages whose labeling is governed by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, including all distilled spirits, wines containing 7 percent alcohol by volume or greater, and beer containing malted barley and hops. Nevertheless, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau may look to the bioengineered food disclosure regulations as persuasive guidance in developing its own policies towards the disclosure of bioengineered ingredients (often called “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”). Continue Reading USDA Publishes Proposed GMO Labeling Regulations

This month, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an opinion in Arena Restaurant and Lounge, Inc. v. Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, No. 17-CV-03805-LHK. The Arena case, also called Nguyen after its original named Plaintiff, seeks to certify a class action against Southern Glazer’s for a wide range of allegedly fraudulent, deceptive, and otherwise illegal acts related to the sale and distribution of wine and spirits in California. The court’s recent order, issued on April 9 and amended on April 16, 2018, dismisses all claims brought by the Plaintiffs in their Second Amendment Complaint (SAC). Significantly, however, the court will allow the Plaintiffs to file an amended complaint within 30 days in an attempt to cure defects in many of the SAC’s claims.

At the center of the Arena case are allegations that Southern Glazer’s engaged in practices such as selling to unlicensed persons and hiding such sales by recording them as sales to licensed retailers like the Plaintiffs. These “phantom” sales, in turn, allegedly created tax problems for the Plaintiff retailers. The SAC also alleges price discrimination between different retailers, selling to retailers without delivering the inventory in order to meet sales quotas, engaging in giveaways of free product to retailers, engaging in illegal “tie-in sales” practices, and a host of other alleged wrongs. The SAC packages these wide-ranging allegations into no fewer than eleven claims for relief.

Continue Reading District Court Dismisses Pending Trade Practice Case, With Leave to Amend

Changes in Administration and other political shifts can have subtle and, occasionally, not-so-subtle influences in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) policies and priorities. In the article, “TTB in a Deregulatory Mood” published by Artisan Spirit, Marc Sorini explores how the Trump Administration’s desire to reduce regulatory burdens on business has already influenced TTB’s regulatory priorities. Particularly, in the most recent “Unified Agenda,” a bi-annual compilation of federal regulatory initiatives, TTB placed a priority on deregulatory projects, several of which would alter the regulatory environment for the industry. Marc discusses how the change in administration appears to have an effect on TTB’s rulemaking efforts.

Access the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, Spring 2018.

As most members of the alcohol and beverage industry are aware, Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) acquired the global holdings of SABMiller in a more than $100 billion merger in October 2016. The Department of Justice (DOJ) required ABI to divest SABMiller’s United States business, including its ownership interest in MillerCoors. Since November 2016, the parties have engaged in ongoing briefing seeking approval of a Proposed Final Judgment (PFJ) in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

Continue Reading ABI/SAB Miller Deal: DOJ Clarifies Best Efforts Clause in Proposed Final Judgment

On March 20, 2018, a federal district court in Texas issued an opinion in Deep Ellum Brewing, LLC, et al. v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The court delivered a blow to Texas craft brewers, upholding Texas’ prohibition on sales of beer by brewers to consumers for off-premises consumption.

Texas authorizes the manufacture and sale of beer by persons holding a: (1) brewer’s permit (allowing the production of beer of more than 4% alcohol by weight (ABW)); (2) manufacturer’s license (allowing the production of beer of 4% ABW or less); or (3) brewpub license. Like many states, Texas’ alcohol beverage laws mandate separation among the three tiers of the alcohol industry: manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing. The three-tier laws generally require alcohol beverages to be sold from manufacturers to wholesalers, from wholesalers to retailers, and finally from retailers to consumers.

Continue Reading Federal District Court Rejects Craft Brewers’ Equal Protection and Due Process Challenge of Texas’ Ban on Brewer Off-Premises Retailing

Today, TTB published additional Tax Act guidance on its website. Three new clarifications address the interaction of the new Tax Act rates/credits with the wine and flavor credits available under 26 U.S.C. § 5010. The clarifications are:

  1. TTB re-confirms that the 5010 credit applies to spirits subject to the Tax Act’s reduced rates, but the 5010 credit cannot reduce the effective rate of tax on any spirit to below zero.
  2. TTB indicates that the effective rate of tax on products receiving 5010 flavor credit will vary, depending on the applicable Tax Act rate applied to the finished product.
  3. The wine base rates, before any reduction through Tax Act credit allowances, are to be used when calculating the wine content credit applied to a spirit under Section 5010.