Wine-based liquor look-a-likes hit shelves of Virginia convenience stores

RICHMOND, Va. -- The front shelves of most convenience stores are typically filled with the colorful packaging of candy or gum. But many customers in Central Virginia have spotted a new item in many local shops: bottles of what appears to be liquor.

The Virginia Mercury first reported that some people were perplexed why local gas stations and markets were selling bottles that looked like imitation Fireball whiskey or Russian Vodka. Purchasing of hard liquor and spirits outside of state-run ABC stores is not allowed in Virginia.

Turns out, the products classify as wine and are thus legal to sell at local stores, according to a spokesperson for Virginia ABC. Companies have tried to skirt liquor laws for years, in Virginia and elsewhere, according to Virginia ABC, but these products were approved because they fit within Virginia code.

Shashi Zota owns Trolley Market near VCU’s main campus. Zota said his distributor brought him the products a few weeks ago saying they are selling like crazy everywhere. The distributor wanted to see how they would do at Trolley Market.

"Everybody who comes over here is surprised. 'Oh, you guys start selling liquor?' I say, well, this is not liquor it’s wine,” Zota said.  “We're not so expert on wine, so the distributor brought it over here.”

Although the labeling looks almost identical to certain kinds of liquor, the phrasing on them all include some variation of “grape wine with natural flavor and color.” The fortified wines are flavored to taste similar to whiskey, vodka, or rum.

Because the beverages are made of from a wine base, they qualify as wine under Virginia code, according to Virginia ABC. The alcohol content is exactly 21 percent, which is the highest level ABV allowed under Virginia law to still be considered wine.

Virginia law restricts companies from printing labels that would mislead customers about whether or not they contain spirits. An ABC spokesperson said their board approved the products and their packaging in August 2018.

Louisiana based distiller Sazerac makes the fortified wines found in most stores in Central Virginia.

Shashi Zota

"Consumers are increasingly seeking out a variety of different beverages and packages in non-traditional retail outlets,” said Amy Preske, Public Relations Manager for Sazerac. "These products can be enjoyed neat plus they also make a fantastic array of mixed drinks including screwdrivers, bloody Mary, with tonic, margaritas, colada, and with coke. Their low alcohol content is in keeping with the promotion of moderate consumption and calorie control.”

Alease Christina shops at Trolley Market. She gave the rum version a shot a few weeks ago.

"It tastes like liquor. It tastes like rum,” Christian said. "I tried it one time, it was pretty good. But I stick to Chardonnay and stuff like that.”

"It could have you fooled, I guess. You know what I’m saying? Because it looks like you got it out of the ABC store somewhere,” Christian continued.

Zota said the liquor look-a-likes are not selling well at his store and most have sat in boxes since arrived at Trolley Market. He is sending several boxes back to this distributor.

"I don’t have for just extra storage unless something moves, and this stuff doesn’t move. We told them to just come and take it back,” Zota said.

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