Mark Phillips found out the hard way last week when agents from the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control showed up at his door and arrested him for selling an alcoholic beverage without a license.
What did Phillips -- the executive director of the Wine Tasting Association, a nonprofit group that runs wine-tasting events and classes in the Washington, D.C., area -- do that was so wrong? He started by posting a note on his Web site that he was willing to sell some of his private collection of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. An interested buyer called up Phillips, who then agreed to part with a bottle of 1991 Lafite for $110.
That buyer turned out to be an undercover agent from the Virginia ABC. "They came to my house and paid for the wine, and that same day, the squad cars and agents converged on my home, with guns and everything," said Phillips. "It was a full-blown raid, like something out of the movies. My family was traumatized They searched my home and took away the remaining 12 bottles of Lafite."
It's not the first time Phillips has sold wine as a private collector to another individual, which he said is a "very common" practice among fellow wine lovers. But he had no idea that what he was doing was illegal. "The wine tasting association educates people about wine, and we've been doing that 10 years," he said. "We get a [one-day] permit from the ABC every time we have a function. We always try to follow the rules; there would be no way I would try to break the law. There certainly would be no way I would advertise [the sale of wine] if I thought it was against the law."
ABC officials said that an arrest in a sale between private collectors was unusual. "Certainly within the last year, I cannot remember another charge for this violation being made for circumstances of this nature," said Philip Disharoon, assistant special agent in charge of the ABC's regional office in Alexandria. "We very often make arrests for the sale of alcohol without a license," he said, but these more likely involve businesses or events that are open to the public, have a large attendance or draw a lot of attention. Sales between private individuals don't often come to the ABC's attention.
But Disharoon said the law is very clear, and he expressed surprise that people would not be aware of it. "In Virginia, you can't sell alcoholic beverages without holding a license," he said. "Any sale, or transaction of the type Phillips made, constitutes a sale."
Phillips was charged with a class I misdemeanor, and if convicted, he is subject to a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A court date is set for next month.
"I deal with [the ABC] all the time; they are just doing their job, I guess," said Phillips. "I was surprised at the force they applied, coming in with all the cars, but I have nothing against them. It was just a surprise." Looking at the situation from a wine lover's perspective, he noted, "Oddly, [the buyer] chose the worst vintage of the wines I had for sale."