Farming takes time. Like many crops, vines have one growing season a year. Manufacturing companies can pump out multiple production runs each year. But farming is a long, drawn-out process which doesn’t give you any real feedback until harvest.
It’s Like A Party!
You know what else takes time? Governmental regulations. Licensing. Getting people in charge to approve what you want to do. And it’s largely uncontrollable.
In “the wine biz,” we’ve got multiple layers of permitting. Everybody wants in. It’s like a party. Some of agencies cooperate with, and rely on, the others. Some of these couldn’t care less about the others. Their processes and intentions are not always intuitive, and often they have different vocabularies. So, trying to understand these agencies is like being immersed in a foreign culture. Generally speaking, everybody working for these agencies wants to be helpful, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. The process can be maddening.
Let Us Be A Winery
Collecting and paying alcohol taxes is a big responsibility. We approved to collect taxes on behalf the federal and state governments. The State of California takes its lead from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the TTB), which is a branch of the United States Department of Treasury. Since the TTB takes the lead in this relationship, our goal was to get TTB permitting to be a winery. That process can sometime take nine or more months, so it makes sense to get the paperwork filed as quickly as possible. Willow Creek Estate filed for bonded winery status with the TTB in January, 2017.
While the paperwork was winding its way through the federal permitting system, we filed for our state permitting. In California, winery permits are issued by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (the ABC). It’s good news that the ABC typically processes applications more quickly that does the TTB. It’s also good new that applicants such as Willow Creek Estate can submit an application concurrently with the TTB and the ABC. The bad news is that an ABC permit cannot be issued until the TTB has issued the federal permit. So, even if the state agencies finish their application processing, they must put the application on hold if the federal government is still working on their processes.
Willow Creek Estate was issued a TTB winery permit on June 5, 2017, just over four months after the initial filing. The speed with which the TTB approved the winery was a welcome surprise. But it was completely unexpected. As it happened, the ABC permit would not have to be put on hold until the federal permit was issued. Instead, the state could issue their permit as soon as their discovery process wrapped up. This was very good news.
Once the TTB had issued our federal bonded winery permit, Willow Creek Estate was free to follow with the next phase of federal approvals. The TTB has a secondary responsibility when it comes to American wine sales. They also approve all labeling. This is required for a variety of reasons. For instance, wine labels must be careful to include and not include specific details. And only a permitted winery may apply for wine bottle label approval. For us, the timeliness of our winery permit was important because we had begun stockpiling product that needed to be processed and labeled.
Judging By The Label
The federal government issues Certification of Label Approvals (COLAs). Each wine varietal and vintage needs to have a COLA before it can be labeled. For Willow Creek Estate, this meant we needed several COLAs. Our initial release of product is slated to include two vintages of Zinfandel (2013 and 2014), along with 2014 vintages of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend. That’s seven different COLAs. Luckily, the COLA process is relatively quick and easy. Our COLAs were issued in about two weeks. That allowed us to begin processing our wine.
And don’t even get me started on the application process for collecting excise taxes. Wine, it turns out, is a luxury item …
It’s All About The Locals
Probably the greatest regulatory headaches are caused by county agencies. I cannot stress enough that the County of San Luis Obispo cares deeply about striking a common ground which is as beneficial as possible between businesses and citizens. Sometimes, though, that’s easier said than done. As it turns out, there are a number of county residents in the Paso Robles area who are upset that Paso Robles has become a Mecca for wine lovers. It is the best wine region in the country. And wine tourism has resulted in deep friction between those of us in the wine business and residents who are not. Unfortunately for the county planning commission, they are left with the responsibility of trying to keep the peace.
There are other aspects which make working with the county difficult, of course. Most of those details aren’t worth discussing here. But who would have thought that the federal and state governments would be far easier to navigate than the county?
So as Willow Creek Estate begins the month of August, 2017, we are approved by the federal government to make and sell wine. We are also approved by the county to make and sell wine. Our California permit to make and sell wine is still pending, but we hope that process will wrap up soon. Our new wine releases are mostly processed, with final bottling of Zinfandel scheduled for this coming month. Hopefully, September will be our breakout month!
Just in time for 2017 harvest!