Understanding the California ABC’s New Advisory for Wineries and Third Party Providers

The proliferation of “Third Party Providers” (TPP) within the wine industry has been significant over the past two years. Known otherwise as “Third Party Marketers”, “Third Party Advertising Agents” and “Marketing Agents”, they represent a new sales channel for suppliers whether in the form of “flash sales” or multiple product offer websites.

However, anybody that has operated as a TPP in California has done so under a great deal of uncertainty ever since the issuance by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) of an advisory in June 2009 that questioned the degree to which TPPs and wineries utilizing their services were acting in accordance with the laws and regulations of California. Most of that has changed with a new advisory letter issued today by the California ABC that provides clear guidance on how wineries and TPPs can work together.

This article lays out the key concepts every licensed seller (wineries and wine retailers) should understand and adhere to in order to work with non-licensed TPPs in a compliant fashion. We see this new advisory by the California ABC as a critical new document that will have a big impact for wine suppliers, consumers, and advertisers alike.


Criteria #1: Placement & Pricing

What the Advisory says: “all sales transactions involving Third Party Providers must ultimately be conducted by and under the control of a licensee. This includes decisions concerning the selection of alcoholic beverages to advertise or offer for sale, the pricing of those beverages, and the ultimate acceptance and fulfillment of the sales transaction.”

Best Practice: When engaging a TPP, the licensed seller should monitor how their products are being represented, and should also communicate to the TPP an allowable price (or price range) for advertisement to the consumer. Sellers should also communicate to the TPP the states in which they are licensed to ship so the TPP can filter products by the consumer’s state and also show the list of available states for each seller.

Criteria #2: Transparency

What the Advisory says: “The licensee responsible for the sale must be clearly identified and must ultimately control the transaction, including any decisions concerning acceptance or rejection of such orders.”

Best Practice: TPPs should clearly show to the consumer, prior to checkout, the name of the licensee for the transaction. For example, “This product is sold and shipped by Winery A, Sonoma, CA”. The licensee name should also be presented to the consumer on any generated consumer invoices.

Criteria #3: Acceptance

What the Advisory says: “The licensee responsible for the sale must be clearly identified and must ultimately control the transaction, including any decisions concerning acceptance or rejection of such orders.”

Best Practice: A good mechanism for ensuring acceptance is a batch email that is sent out on a periodic (daily or semi-daily, for example) basis. The email would contain the order request information and details, and the seller would have the opportunity to reject or accept the orders by responding to the email, or clicking on an accept/reject button. If a comprehensive compliance check has already been run against the seller’s shipping license, then the seller would likely not have many reasons to reject the requests.

Criteria #4: Fulfillment

What the Advisory says: “Licensees must also be responsible for, and must control, the fulfillment of orders and the shipment of alcoholic beverages from the licensees’ licensed premises or other authorized shipping point (such as a licensed public warehouse).”

Best Practice: Following the acceptance process, the seller then provides instructions for releasing the order to fulfillment. Licensees should ensure that the wine is shipped either from their licensed premise, or a licensed warehouse. The wine is then shipped, and a shipping notification is sent back to both the seller and the TPP. Following shipping notification, payment is captured.

Criteria # 5: Payment and Disbursement

What the Advisory says: “The control of funds from a transaction involving the sale of alcoholic beverages constitutes a significant degree of control over a licensed business. As such, while a Third Party Provider may act as an agent for the licensee in the collection of funds (such as receiving credit card information and securing payment authorization), the full amount collected must be handled in a manner that gives the licensee control over the ultimate distribution of funds. This means that the Third Party Provider cannot independently collect the funds, retain its fee, and pass the balance on to the licensee. The Third Party Provider should pass all funds collected from the consumer to the licensee conducting the sale, and that licensee should thereafter pay the Third Party Provider for services rendered.”

Best Practice: At the time of transaction, payment is authorized, but not captured. Following shipment notification, payment is captured, and funds settle either directly to the seller, or into a trust account that is controlled by the seller. The funds can then be disbursed to the parties (for advertising fees, fulfillment fees, technology fees, etc.) from the control of the licensed seller.

The new criteria for licensees working with TPPs is a paradigm shift that will work its way through the industry over the next few months. However, we believe that as licensed sellers and TPPs understand the change and put in to place mechanisms to insure they are operating compliantly, the new rules will help both TPPs and licensed sellers operate with certainty, at least in California.

It is important to understand that this new criteria only applies to licensees in California. However, California’s regulatory system often acts as a benchmark for regulators in other states and we will be watching closely to see how other states react to this collaborative effort between the ABC and the working group of industry experts it established to provide recommendations on the issue of TPPs in California. It should be noted that this new CA ABC advisory was issued today in the midst of a meeting of the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (NCSLA) meeting in San Francisco. So, regulators in most states are now well aware of the new California advisory and the process they used to come to the solution.

In the end, what’s important for licensees working with TPPs to understand is that it is the licensed seller (the winery or retailer) that is ultimately responsible for the actions of the Third Party Provider, which makes it in the best interests of the licensee to be sure the TPP understands these new rules and that they are in compliance with them.

California ABC Advisory


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