Representing Change: One Piece of Washington's Overhaul

Last year, Washington State relaxed some of its restrictive alcoholic beverage laws as a result of a couple of comprehensive bills that passed the legislature (SB 5834 and HB 2040). The mandatory minimum markups between suppliers and wholesalers and between wholesalers and retailers are now history. Retailers can now pay suppliers using electronic funds transfers if they want to. Price posting (which required beer and wine suppliers and distributors to file their product prices with the state and hold those prices for 30 days) was officially abolished.

Another change in the law that has more significance than it might appear to on the surface is the expansion of the state law’s definition of “Authorized Representative.” First, some definitions are in order: a Certificate of Approval is the Washington license given to a U.S. winery or brewery located outside of Washington that enables it to ship its products to a Washington importer or distributor. An “Authorized Representative” is an entity located outside of Washington but in the U.S. that is appointed by a Certificate of Approval (COA) holder to market and sell the COA holder’s products into the state of Washington through the three-tier system.

Before last July, Washington made it very hard for out of state wineries and breweries to sell their products into Washington through marketing agents, unless they wanted to give over all of their brands to the marketing agent.

That’s because, through a quirk in Washington law whose origins aren’t very clear, there could be only one source (i.e. either one Certificate of Approval license holder, or one Authorized Representative) for an out of state winery or brewery’s products. For example, if you were a winery that produces Brand A and Brand B, and you have been selling your Brand A to a Washington importer, you couldn’t appoint an Authorized Representative to market and sell your Brand B in Washington.

That all changed on July 26, 2009. As part of the “omnibus bill” and other sweeping legislative changes that took place last year in Washington, the definition of Authorized Representative was amended to remove the exclusivity portion that had been so problematic. As a result of the change to RCW 66.04.010(2), a Certificate of Approval holder can now divide up its brands, selling some itself and using one or more Authorized Representatives to market and sell different ones, if it wants. The state does require the producer to have written agreements with each of its Authorized Representatives, and there can be only one Authorized Representative per brand, but even with these restrictions, this one seemingly minor change in the law gives producers a lot more control and flexibility over how they market their products in Washington.

-Sara Mann, Beverage Industry Attorney

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