The licensed liquor industry have their friends at the ABC ready and willing to stomp out any enterprising individuals that have their sights set on carving out their own piece of the liquor market. In this country you have to pay to play the liquor game. If you don’t pay off the State, they will come after you. And if they catch you, they’ll crush the life out of you and your business.
Craft-distilleries are growing in popularity nationwide. This phenomenon has the sacred cows in the liquor industry scrambling and trying to figure out how to gain a share of the craft market. If they are unable to gain a share, eliminating the competition is the next best option for the big liquor companies. Their State employed cronies are happy to help.
This brings us to the unfortunate story of Virginian Wine maker Mike Bowles. The Hook details Mr. Bowles run-in with the law as he tried to transition his winery to a craft-distillery.
Long before vineyards became agriculture du jour in Virginia, Mike Bowles planted grapevines in 1977, and he claims he’s Albemarle’s first farm winery operator. Thirty years later, he wanted to be a pioneer again and hop on the craft-distillery trend to make the Italian spirit grappa from his chardonnay grape leftovers. Instead, he’s earned a more dubious distinction as possibly the first person to get busted while applying for a federal distillery license. Under Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control regs, that could cost him his license to make wine at all.
Bowles insists he was trying to comply with the hefty volume of federal and state regulations that date from the end of Prohibition, and says he had no idea the eight-ounce sample bottle sitting on his desk when ABC agents came in would lead to a felony charge that could jeopardize his mom-and-pop business.
The article goes on to discuss how Alcoholic Beverage Control agents ended up at his winery. Mr. Bowles son, Alex, decided it would be a good idea to try to make some distilled spirits before plowing tens of thousands of dollars into the project. Alex purchased an inexpensive still online and the father and son duo started experiment with the distilling process.
Distilling liquor is a complex process. You have to experiment with ingredients and process before a quality finished product can be produced. In fact, a federal license to distill liquor requires that a step by step process be submitted with the application.
The article describes how the State learned that father and son were experimenting with making Eau di vie, a distilled beverage made from fruit or other grapes.
Mike Bowles’ path to a felony charge started with some trouble his son had involving marijuana. The Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force showed up at Alex Bowles’ house March 9, 2012, with “guns blazing,” says the son.
In the course of that raid, agents spied a five-gallon still, and they tipped off their buddies at the ABC, who showed up with a search warrant. Along with a felony for distribution of pot, for which he was sentenced to three months in jail, Alex Bowles picked up a felony for the illegal manufacture of alcohol.
And it gets worse.
In the course of the agents’ investigation, they learned that Alex’s father was a licensee of the ABC. The ABC narrative also notes that a “female suspect” told the agents, “Mr. Bowles and his son were preparing to manufacture distilled spirits in a legitimate manner after the process was refined.”
That revelation led to a visit to Mike Bowles by not one, not two, but three ABC agents— Covey, Davis, and Senior Special Agent John Craft— on March 16, 2012. In his office in the basement of his home, Bowles freely confessed he planned to make grappa, the agents reported. They noticed several bottles on his desk, some with grappa labels on them, and Bowles told them he was creating test labels and trying out different bottles. He also showed them the application he’d submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for a federal license.
One bottle containing a clear liquid with no label caught Craft’s attention. Subsequent lab testing confirmed that it contained un-aged distilled spirits.
“We’re not bootleggers; we’re not selling it,” Bowles told Covey in a subsequent interview. The ABC report notes Bowles gave a detailed account of where he’d purchased the equipment, how he and his son intended to manufacture the grappa, and that he believed they were on the brink of a new industry, while admitting he’d used “poor judgment” in the experimentation. He applied for the state distillery four days after the agents’ visit.
Based on his investigation, Covey charged Bowles with conspiracy to illegally manufacture alcohol, a felony, and illegal transportation of alcoholic beverages.
This is a straight forward case of the State attempting to ruin the lives of non-violent individuals for committing victim-less crimes. Their only crime being that they did not pay off the State in a timely manner. Lucky for Mr. Bowles, the story has a happy ending. Mr. Bowles received his distillery license and most likely will escape with probation. Not everyone is so lucky.
We’ve said it before at Lions of Liberty; the only difference between the State and the Mafia is the State has a better public relations department.
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