Critics get last chance to stop wine giant from opening SC tasting rooms

Maayan Schechter
·3 min read

A battle over where South Carolinians can sample and buy wine became the focus of a debate Thursday over what is proposed to be a major economic develop project in the state.

South Carolina wineries joined an effort to curb a wine giant’s expansion in South Carolina, saying their plan to add standalone tasting rooms in the state would “destroy” their business. The wine company and its supporters argue that is not true.

Opponents against a request by Gallo Winery, a California-based bottling and distribution company, to open three tasting rooms, that would be in addition to a $400 million investment to build a massive East Coast hub in Chester County, got their last public say on Thursday in front of a state House panel.

But those efforts to eliminate the tasting rooms, already unsuccessful in the Senate this month, also failed after the four-member panel unanimously advanced legislation that would change South Carolina’s alcohol laws, sending the proposal to the full House Judiciary Committee. That committee is expected to meet early next week.

South Carolina wineries are playing under one rule, while the California winery is playing under another rule, testified Richard LaBarre, who, with his wife, Laura, own and operate Enoree River Vineyards & Winery in Newberry.

The legislation, LaBarre said, will “destroy wineries in this state.”

Last month, after some secrecy, Gallo Winery unveiled to state lawmakers plans to build an initial $400 million bottling and distribution manufacturing plant on about 640 acres in Fort Lawn, Chester County. In the company’s first phase, Gallo representative Rob Donoho told lawmakers it plans to add 500 jobs over the next few years but expects that to grow to more than 1,000 jobs over 30 years.

A study by the University of South Carolina estimated the investment could grow in excess of $1 billion, a representative said.

Drawing Gallo to South Carolina is the direct access to the Port of Charleston and the rail line, also the state’s Ready SC workforce training program through the state Department of Commerce, Donoho said.

“We definitely knew that the southeast part of the United States was a sweet spot for us I’d say between Georgia and North Carolina,” said Donoho, who testified virtually Thursday from an airport.

Dwight Drake, a lobbyist representing Gallo, told the House panel on Thursday that Gallo is adding almost the same number of jobs that German automaker BMW initially added when it opened its Spartanburg County plant more than 20 years ago.

Gallo, Drake said, would “have the same kind of impact in the Fort Lawn community,” and, like BMW, would uproot a community that has “suffered from the demise of the textile industry.”

But the legislation for Gallo does not address the manufacturing site but three satellite tasting rooms in areas of the state with high foot traffic — an addition not currently allowed under state law that critics say will hurt small business and gives out-of-state Gallo an unfair advantage in the market.

Gallo could only sell a customer six bottles of their wine — not beer or liquor — and the tasting rooms would have to close at 5:30 p.m. so that they do not compete with restaurants. Aiming to try and assuage wholesalers and retailers, senators also added a provision in the bill that would require Gallo to buy its own bottles for the tasting rooms through licensed wholesalers and sell it at a retail price. The state’s revenue department also would have oversight powers to make sure Gallo’s investment happens.

And, another provision added to help grease the rails for the legislation and appease micro-distilleries, the Senate added a separate measure increasing the amount those distilleries could serve for tasting and allow them to have a restaurant on site.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.