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Sangriagate

Order a Sangria at your own peril.

Traditional Sangria is based on a red-wine punch that has been popular across Europe for hundreds of years. Originally based on a Bordeaux wine, brandy and fruit were mixed in for added effect. The popularity of the punch rose dramatically in the 18th and 19th centuries, and each modern Spanish restaurant has its own recipe for mixing red wine and Brandy.

There’s only one problem: It’s illegal in Virginia.

"For restaurants in Virginia, mixing red wind and brandy is against the law," said Curtis Coleburn III, chief operating officer for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "The system was designed to promote temperance."

Coleburn said that violating the anti-Sangria code is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine or 12 months in jail. The code section in question dates back to 1932, when Virginia created a new regulatory framework to control alcohol sales and consumption in the wake of Prohibition. That was when the state created a monopoly on the sale of distilled spirits, which can be purchased only in state-owned institutions. Coleburn said that restaurateurs and patrons who are angered by the code should direct their anger about the illegal nature of the traditional Spanish punch toward the General Assembly, whose members are in charge of making the rules.

The regulators, he said, only carry them out.

"We won’t be hammering every restaurant that sells Sangria," said Coleburn. "But we will be reminding them that it’s illegal."

<b>EVEN IF MIXING</b> brandy and wine were legal, regulators say, restaurateurs would not be allowed to mix the concoction until a patron actually placed an order — a situation that would prohibit the traditional fermentation process in which the fruit blends with the wine and brandy. The relevant code section banning "premixing," as the regulators call it, dates back to 1968 when Virginia created a series of laws that would allow restaurants to sell "liquor by the glass."

According to Phillip Disharoon, special agent in charge for Northern Virginia, the reason that restaurateurs can’t mix Sangria ahead of time is that regulators must be able to assure that restaurateurs are buying state-issued liquor in compliance with the governmental monopoly of distilled spirits.

"We can’t bend the will of regulations to meet every recipe," said Disharoon. "The regulators must be able to determine that the alcohol was purchased in Virginia, and putting it in a pitcher would prevent us from being able to do that."

<b>VIRGINIA’S MONOPOLY</b> on distilled spirits has its roots in America’s failed experiment with Prohibition, a period from 1920 to 1933 when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." Virginia had already been "dry" since Nov. 1 1916, when the General Assembly ended all alcohol sales — a move that shuttered the doors of the Robert Portner’s popular Alexandria brewery, which later became the namesake to the now defunct Portner’s Restaurant.

"My great grandfather lost a seat in the Virginia Senate because he refused to vote for Prohibition," said Virginia Sen. John Watkins (R-10). "He was what they used to call a Wet Democrat."

After the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, the national mood shifted and the prohibition experiment became increasingly unpopular. Virginia was one of the last states to join the anti-prohibitionist movement, approving the amendment in a statewide referendum on Oct. 25, 1933. In response to the end of prohibition, Virginia created the Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control — a vast new state bureaucracy with its own system of right and wrong.

"I think it’s a conflict of interest," said Watkins, who has led an ill-fated effort to privatize Virginia’s liquor sales. "The current system is a rip-off to consumers, and privatization would actually lead to an increase in state revenue because it would drastically reduce operating costs."

<b>THE HISTORY OF</b> Virginia’s complicated relationship with alcohol sales dates back to a time when the politics of the state were controlled by the Byrd machine, a group of political power brokers who took their lead from U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd. Across the commonwealth, members of the Democratic Party machine advocated for a combination monopoly and license system patterned after the system then used in Quebec, Canada. The plan called for all hard liquors to be sold by the state with lighter beverages to be dispensed by licensees of the state.

"Although the Byrd Machine had been associated with prohibition for many years, its members were primarily interested in retaining power," said Robert Hawkes, emeritus professor of history at George Mason University. "And creating a state monopoly gave the state a good source of revenue during the depths of the Depression."

Hawkes said that the regulatory framework created in the 1930s to control the use of alcohol was an entirely pragmatic affair, with politicians abandoning their ethical principles in an effort to find a reliable source of funding state programs. Yet in their zeal to appease groups such as the Women’s Temperance Christian Union, Hawkes said, members of the Byrd Machine created a regulatory framework that seems outdated in the modern world.

"I think that any effort to end this particular law would sail through the General Assembly," said Hawkes. "It’s also worth noting that while members of the Byrd Machine were associated with the prohibitionist movement, they were drinkers in their personal lives."

<b>THE IDEA THAT</b> restaurateurs don’t have the freedom to prepare traditional Sangria seems anathema to the business spirit, many legislators say. Those advocating reform have fixed their sites on two sections of the Virginia — one that prohibits mixing wine with brandy and one that prevents restaurants from premixing drinks in an effort to enforce the state’s monopoly on distilled spirits.

"I think this is silly," said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49), whose district includes many Latino residents in Arlandria. "People should be able to drink Sangria."

Ebbin said that he plans to introduce legislation next year to legalize Sangria.

"These outdated laws need to be updated for the 21st century," he said.