Monday, September 30, 2019

California ABC facing three separate whistleblower lawsuits

California's department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is trying to ram through a controversial program to force restaurant servers to pass a licensing test, is currently facing three separate, active whistleblower lawsuits in state superior court in Sacramento.

If the allegations of its ex-employees are true, the ABC's legal department is a place where vindictive leaders exact retribution on its employees for attempting to follow the law. If there was only one lawsuit, it would be easy to dismiss it as complaints of a disgruntled employee. But these are 3 lawsuits, two completely unrelated, filed by attorneys who worked for years for the organization.

Here's a short summary of each lawsuit.

Adriana Ruelas vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Filed in Oct. 2017, this is the most troubling case, and yet it is also not the only time this plaintiff has made accusations like this against an employer.

Ruelas worked for ABC as a Legislative Officer from 2013 until she resigned in 2016. She claims she "witnessed years of racist, sexist, and homophobic statements by ABC Director Timothy Gorsuch and other high level employees within the Department." Ruelas says she was "called a criminal due to her race," and told her child was an "anchor baby." She also claims that at a meeting regarding licensing issues related to a Long Beach Gay Pride event, she "observed Gorsuch mock the event and simulate oral sex by pushing his tongue into the inside of his cheek repeatedly."

(Note that one of the biggest problems with the ABC's intended plan for training servers is the callous disregard for people who do not speak English as a first language, and for restaurant workers with low incomes.)

She also alleges that she suggested that ABC only enforced a law against "drink solicitation" -- where a bar uses employees to seduce patrons into ordering them a drink -- in bars frequented by Latinos. She alleges that a top ABC official told her "only Latinos violate this law" and that Ruelas was probably herself a "B-girl" (the term used by the agency to describe drink solicitors.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

California ABC doesn't consider restaurants or workers "stakeholders" in new plan to regulate them

Yesterday the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control did a good thing by extending comment period to Oct. 11 on controversial new regulations that would require almost every restaurant server in the state to get a license and appear in a massive database.

I wrote a very hasty blog post, but I cannot claim any credit for the extended comment period. Beverage attorney John Hinman alerted me and many others to the problem with this fine blog post.

Now that I have a little time, I want to hone in on a problem with ABC's approach in writing these proposed regulations.

First, a quick summary. ABC was charged by the legislature with creating a Responsible Beverage Service training program. The goal is to recognize intoxicated patrons, and not serve them, thus reducing drunk driving.

However, the ABC consulted almost exclusively with law enforcement officials and neo-Prohibitionist groups before writing proposed regulations that, among other things:
* Require restaurant servers to pay a third-party group for certification
* Require servers to pass a test that includes unrelated issues like identifying illegal drugs
* Set up a statewide database for registered restaurant servers, which should cause privacy concerns
* Does not include provisos for servers who do not speak English or Spanish as a first language

Hinman complains that the comment period was fast and was set to end before most people even noticed that it started. Wine Industry Insight publisher Lewis Perdue also wrote Monday that the ABC was trying to sneak through new regulations without the public noticing. It certainly felt that way to me: the first I learned about this massive expansion of state bureaucracy and violation of restaurant servers' privacy was Monday afternoon, and the deadline for comment was Tuesday.

But maybe that's my fault. I'm just Alcohol Media. The ABC could have sent alcohol media -- also including Perdue -- a press release, but nobody likes the media these days. Apparently we should have hung out on the ABC website looking for news.

What's troubling is that apparently the ABC did NOT reach out to the main groups that will be affected by these new regulations: restaurant owners, restaurant managers, and restaurant employees. I will show this below.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Emergency! Your comments needed to stop racist ABC regulations

California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was scheduled to end public comment TUESDAY, Sept. 24* on a new regulation that will negatively impact tens of thousands of legal immigrants and working-class people.

Here's the problem: If you want to be a restaurant server -- not a bartender, just a server -- in a place that serves alcohol, you will have to pass a written test devised by neo-Prohibition forces.

UPDATE: The assembly bill requires the course to be available, at a minimum, in Spanish and English.

I live in San Francisco. I'm not sure the last three restaurant servers I had could pass a written test in English -- or Spanish (I went to two Vietnamese family-owned restaurants and one Chinese). They might lose their jobs because of this regulation, which ABC projects to affect 1 million working Californians.

UPDATE: Thanks to a great blog post by beverage attorney John Hinman, the ABC extended the deadline at the last minute to Oct. 11, with an extremely defensive press release. More on that tomorrow. But the good news is, you have time to comment.

We need more time to comment. I will give the comment link below; here is a copy of Hinman's comment.

Let me stand up my high horse here, because I have a level of outrage unusual even for me:


Friday, September 20, 2019

The poison-vape crisis could be good for cannabis terroir

Cannabis is a quickly expanding industry, but it is rapidly losing its roots in the weed itself. The crisis of illegal vape cartridges could be a welcome corrective.

To begin my explanation, let me give you a little personal background. I am on a PR firm's list of journalists for wine, spirits and cannabis.

I cover wine for consumer publications like Wine Searcher, where I am US Editor. But I also write trade magazine articles. So I get press releases about wine spanning the gamut, from "our Transylvania Pinot Noir just got a Bronze Medal in the Tirana Wine Competition" to "how you can use big data to charge more for your Chardonnay." More than 75% of all wine press releases, no matter how comical, are fairly close to grapes.

For cannabis, though: less than 10% of the press releases I get are about a farm product. Because I'm not a business writer I often get cannabis press releases in business-eze that I don't even understand, and would fall asleep if I did ("Our CEO has actualized an effective system for innovative HR solutions!) I do get product pitches, but maybe 75% of them are completely divorced from the plant. "Our CBD oil comes in three scents!"

I think it's intentional. The young cannabis industry is full of entrepreneurs who, perhaps because they're still worried about propriety, do not want to talk about why people use cannabis, which is largely to get high. Those that do, want to talk about the specific type of high. It's very, very rare to get a pitch that talks about the plant itself: where it's grown and how.

Cannabis, currently, has no terroir. Not in the mind of the public -- and that's because it doesn't have terroir in the mind of the industry.

Wine used to be sold like this, in the U.S. in the 1980s. Winemakers mocked terroir. But eventually they came around. Now not only do winemakers prize terroir: the winery business office does as well. If you can establish that Paso Robles is a good place for wine grapes, you can sell more Paso Robles wine. That has become an essential point in wine marketing everywhere.

Terroir must make a difference for cannabis. Apples taste different from Washington and California. Onions are different in Georgia and Wisconsin. Terroir matters to plants. Why would cannabis be an exception?

However, when the industry concentrates on concentrates -- get your buzz on from this plastic cartridge full of THC oil and who knows what filler -- they develop a market that is completely divorced from farming. That's what we have now.

The vape cartridge crisis could be the corrective.

People are going to want to use cannabis in increasing numbers; we all agree on that. But the industry as a whole has been moving away from any relationship to where the cannabis is grown. Flower -- the dried buds of the weed itself, also known as the Only Cannabis Available before it was legal -- has been a minority of sales.

But flower is the core of cannabis appreciation. If people don't buy and use flower, cannabis will be a fad like oat bran. (Personally I think this is CBD oil's future.)

Right now, many potential consumers must be a little skittish about vaping. This is the perfect time, with harvest coming in, for cannabis companies -- producers, distributors, retailers -- to talk about flower. To talk about terroir. To explain why strains (varieties) matter, and that where those strains are grown matters.

One of the reasons vaping took off so quickly is that it seems safer than smoking flower. Now we know that's not the case. You do have to burn something to smoke flower, but you can be pretty sure -- 100% sure in a legal state -- that you're not getting any dangerous additives.

Hopefully some far-sighted cannabis entrepreneurs will decide to do what wine pioneers always do: plant their stake in a certain piece of land and tell us the land is special, and we should seek out cannabis from there.

Terroir matters in cannabis: I believe this. I hope the cannabis industry comes to believe it as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

DirecTV's introductory offer is a scam. Beware.

My life dealing with AT&T. Whatever you do, do NOT sign up for DirecTV

 I don't like putting this on my blog, because it's really off topic, but I need to warn people about AT&T and DirecTV.

Do NOT believe DirecTV if it offers you an introductory deal. It won't work out and you will regret it.

Here is my experience.

I signed up for DirecTV in February, with service starting Feb. 28. If I signed up for a two-year agreement, I was offered three months free of HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and something separate called The Movie Pack. I was also offered NFL Sunday Ticket for free for one season. This is a common deal.

You are supposed to call to cancel the movie channels after three months.

I did get the movie channels for free for (nearly) three months, so that much was true. I called the day after Game of Thrones ended, May 20, to cancel all the pay channels. DirecTV cut off these channels immediately. I haven't received them since.

AT&T, which owns DirecTV, billed me again in June for these channels. I called to complain.

An important point is that AT&T bills in advance. I get a bill on the 10th of the month. The June 10 bill is for services from June 5 to July 4.

After about an hour, I was able to get a refund for June-July. Then I explained that I also wanted a refund for movie channels which they had charged me for in advance, but which I had not received. It wasn't a huge amount of money, from May 28 - June 4. But I hadn't received the channels on those days. That took a LOOOOONG time to get refunded.

(Lawyer alert: I believe there is a class-action lawsuit here. Most people won't even notice they paid for partial months of pay channels and did not receive them.)

This could have been the end of the story. But it hasn't been. In July, AT&T billed me for these movie channels again. I called again and after an hour or so, got a bill credit and was told I wouldn't be billed again.

In August, AT&T billed me for the movie channels again. Same process: hours of my time, eventually a bill credit. You really have to fight for it.

Here's a snippet of what it was like to discuss this online with AT&T in August about being charged through Sep. 4 for channels I haven't received since May:

In September, AT&T billed me for the movie channels again. Which I haven't received since May. Same process: Hours of my time, eventual bill credit.

Also, I did not receive NFL Sunday Ticket for free. I don't know if this will ever be resolved.

Here are three different AT&T reps from the same chat session:

I have to say that DirecTV is also not very good. I like the high-capacity DVR, which I didn't have with Dish, and the ability to record four shows at once. I don't like the interface, which promotes pay-per-view over broadcast/cable programming.

And I haven't been able to stream anything. When I had Dish I frequently watched Golden State Warriors and Oakland Athletics games broadcast by the local cable channel on my phone. I have never been able to stream a sporting event on my phone since I got DirecTV because, apparently, AT&T doesn't pay the channel owners enough to get streaming rights. This isn't something they tell you.

The introductory deal sounds really good, but I deeply regret signing up for it.

AT&T has been nothing but frustration. Also, when I had some kind of trouble with Dish, they would offer small compensation: $5 or $10 off my bill, or a free PPV movie, or some such. I have wasted hours of my life with AT&T just trying to get my bill corrected and they have never offered anything as compensation.

Don't do it. The DirecTV signup offer is not worth the frustration. Just don't do it. Cable is better. So is Dish. So is reading a book. Having DirecTV is like banging your head against somebody's door for an hour and, just as you collapse with a concussion, having somebody poke their head out the window and say, "Thought I heard someone. Guess not."

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Corporate hard seltzer strives to be cool: An actual press release

More than 90% of my e-mail is press releases. I get more than 10,000 per year. But I don't remember ever seeing the word "f***ing" (sic) in one until this gem that I received over the weekend.

It's hard for me to believe the iGeneration are such tremendous suckers that they won't see through this. That said, this release was sent by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the World's Largest Beverage Company, a company so enormous that it makes E. & J. Gallo Winery seem like a small family scratching out a living. Belgium-based multinational conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev didn't sell $54.6 billion worth of mostly flavorless beer last year by being bad at marketing.

The release worked on this level: I'm putting it nearly verbatim, on my blog, for free, which has to be a win for the people who wrote it. All I'm going to do is substitute Anheuser-Busch InBev, the company name, for the brand name of the product. The release also uses a cute nickname for the brand name so I'm going to try to replicate that. Anything I change is (in parentheses); the rest is verbatim. Enjoy, and let me know if this makes you thirsty for something sweet and corporate.

(Press release starts here, including the photo:)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Swiss wine overview: the triumph of the house palate

Vineyards in Aigle in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Can you find the lizard?
Switzerland drinks a lot of wine -- fifth in the world per capita, behind Luxembourg, France, Italy and Portugal. And Switzerland produces only a third of what it consumes. Nonetheless until 20 years ago its market was heavily protected against imports, and it still has tariffs on EU wines because it's not a member of the EU.

This is a recipe for creating a house palate -- a group of wineries and winemakers that think what they're making is great, regardless of what outsiders think.

A house palate is possible anywhere. On one single day in Napa Valley I met three different winery owners who told me they had been to Bordeaux but the wines there aren't any good because they are thin and not powerful enough. But it's more likely to happen in countries where winemakers don't travel: Argentina a decade ago. South Africa shortly after apartheid. Bulgaria and Romania.

So what's Switzerland's excuse? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's a wealthy country and you can hop on a train and be in France, Italy or Germany in a few hours. Swiss consumers surely must appreciate their neighboring countries' wines. But the winemakers ...