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Why so few farm wineries in West Virginia?

By Staff | Sep 6, 2019

In both Maryland and Virginia we see large farm wineries. These businesses draw many tourists to those two states, and bring in significant tax revenue to the treasuries of those states.

Why don’t we have the same level of investment in farm wineries here in Jefferson County? We have the same soil and climate, so it should be the proverbial “no-brainer.”

While we have a few very small wineries, they don’t generate the business, or the tax revenue, that our two next door neighboring states have generated. I believe the culprit is the way the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage and Control Administration interprets the state laws now on the books governing wineries.

A few years ago, the craft beer industry found itself in a similar situation. Craft beers had begun to proliferate in the restaurants of our neighboring states, but tourists who came to West Virginia complained about their inability to find any here. That’s because the interpretation of our beer laws by the ABCA prevented the sale of such products.

For several years, Delegate Jim Morgan (D-Cabell) and I sponsored a bill to rectify the problem. The ABCA opposed it every year, but we finally got it passed, and craft beers began to appear on the menus of West Virginia restaurants.

A similar journey involved the effort to legalize brewpubs, where beer is brewed and consumed at the same location. The ABCA opposed any change in the law, but after years of effort brewpubs became legal.

For four years, until last year, the Speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates was Tim Armstead, of Kanawha County. He was adamantly opposed to alcohol consumption in any form. It was because of his opposition that the so-called “brunch bill” (which permitted restaurants to serve alcohol before noon on Sunday) was difficult to pass. Two years ago, Armstead also insisted that a law passed to encourage “agritourism” specifically prohibit any support for farm wineries.

Armstead is no longer Speaker of the House, having been appointed to the state Supreme Court. In his absence last year, the Legislature passed a bill designed to help the farm winery industry, but I wonder if it went far enough. I talk regularly with West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt about the farm winery industry. He strongly supports farm wineries, and agrees with me that it’s ridiculous that the Eastern Panhandle doesn’t have a farm winery industry as well-developed as those in Virginia and Maryland.

Some argue that West Virginia’s problem is that our state is what the alcohol industry considers a “control” state (a state whose statutes approach alcohol consumption as something to be “controlled”). But Virginia is also a “control” state, and it’s been able to develop a beautiful farm winery industry.

I’m optimistic that we can develop a farm winery industry here in the Eastern Panhandle that will one day rival that of Maryland and Virginia.