Many of Nashville’s wine and spirit purveyors have a distaste for the Tennessee Alcohol and Beverage Commission matched only a by a pants-pissing fear of the agency’s power to put them out of business.
The ABC’s stated mission is to enforce all laws related to the liquor industry, including how, when, where and by whom booze is sold or poured in the Volunteer State. But those in Nashville’s liquor industry say the agency is guilty of harassment, indiscriminant punishment and worse. One woman who works for a large liquor distributor says an ABC inspector scrutinized her every move, implied that she was breaking the law and generally “treated me like I was gang-raping orphans” at a recent wine tasting.
And one Nashville store owner says that when an inspector visited recently, he was concerned by a “rare and hard-to-find” wine that the store was selling. “When I found out they were talking about some cases of Woodbridge, I nearly died laughing,” the man says. Woodbridge, a widely available and moderately priced wine from California, is about as rare as a Toyota Corolla.
The ABC also has made the news lately for some practices that—while legal—are widely unpopular.
Newspaper accounts showed that there was collusion between liquor distributors and the ABC. The deals kept fines low and ensured that federal authorities never found out about violations by industry heavyweights.
In 2005, the ABC promised to drop enforcement of certain rules against restaurants if a proposed bill seeking to curtail the agency’s regulatory power disappeared. The gambit worked, and the bill was withdrawn.
In November, the ABC drew the ire of pretty much every drinker in Tennessee when it announced plans to destroy thousands of bottles of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7—some of them hundreds of years old—found during warehouse raids. The ABC condemned the hooch to the sewer because they suspected that the bottles had been sold by an unlicensed dealer.
And now there’s the case of Melanie Armstrong.
When you think of bootleggers, images of roughneck hillbillies careening around dusty switchbacks in souped-up stock-cars generally come to mind. Think Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road.
Perhaps less obvious is the image of a professional 29-year-old, a “wine educator” who offers private lessons on wine pairings, tastings and regions. Her troubles began in September when she was to host a singles wine tasting and scavenger hunt at Cabana in Hillsboro Village.
“Typically, when I have an event like that I have the wines donated by an importer,” Armstrong says. The importer calls a local distributor and the distributor delivers the wine to the tasting location. As luck would have it, on the week of this particular event Armstrong’s importer was from outside the country, unreachable by phone or email, and hadn’t delivered the wine to Cabana or filled out the proper paperwork with a local distributor.
“I was getting really nervous,” says Armstrong. “The night of the event came up, and I had 35 people coming…. I had to get the wine somehow.”
She turned to her friend Ed Fryer, who owns and operates the Wine Shoppe at Green Hills. “I knew that he [Fryer] had a good relationship with the importer,” Armstrong says. So she bought the wine from Fryer, knowing that the importer would reimburse her.
There was nothing normal about what happened next.
When Armstrong arrived at Cabana with an armload of wine, ABC inspector Debra Warren arrived for a regularly scheduled visit.
“I didn’t know she was an ABC agent when I walked up,” Armstrong says. “She asked me, ‘Are you having a tasting here?’ I thought she wanted to participate, so I was like, ‘You should totally come. It’s a singles event and it’s really fun. Are you single?’ ”
Though Armstrong never ascertained Warren’s dating status, she quickly learned that the woman was an ABC inspector. “I was like, ‘Aw, fuck,’ ” she says. She had heard horror stories from friends in the industry about staggering fines for seemingly minor infractions. But Armstrong knew that she was operating inside the law. Wine tastings are public events, and the liquor was donated, so there isn’t any taxable profit. She also knew that the ABC could make her life miserable if it wanted to.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Is there going to be a problem, because if there’s going to be a problem, we’ll just cancel the event right now?’ ”
She says that Warren responded by saying, “Oh, there’s definitely going to be a problem, I just don’t know what it is yet.” Warren then got on her cell phone and called her supervisor.
Armstrong immediately decided to cancel the event. She told the inspector of her intention to do so and began packing up her wine.
“Apparently, in her eyes I was escaping with the wine,” says Armstrong. Warren blocked her exit and grabbed her arm. Armstrong says that she wrenched her arm free and then headed to her car.
When she returned for the rest of her things, the agent demanded to see an invoice reflecting the origin of and payment for the booze. Armstrong related the circumstances by which she had acquired the wine and told them that she could get an invoice first thing in the morning. That wasn’t good enough.
The agent threatened to take Armstrong to jail and impound her car, a BMW.
“I’m a wine teacher, not a criminal,” Armstrong recalls telling the inspector. “You can’t take my car!”
“Oh yeah, we can take your car,” she says Warren replied. “We will take your car. You know how good we’re going to look driving around in that car?”
By this point Warren’s superior, Special Agent in Charge Michael Cawthon, had showed up. Armstrong describes him as being “more levelheaded.”
The agents decided that Armstrong wouldn’t need to go to jail that day. She would be handed an arrest citation and would have to go to jail at a later date for booking and to face a judge. The charge was possession of untaxed alcohol, just like the bootleggers of yore.
Unlike what happened to those wily old hillbillies, her vehicle was not impounded, but the agents did seize her title and registration.
Nashville attorney Dan Haskell is familiar with the tactics of ABC agents, having served as an assistant commissioner of the agency between 1981 and 1984. He’s now in private practice and represents many clients with issues that come before the board. He was hesitant to go on the record with the Scene, saying, “If I answer [questions] for attribution, the board won’t be happy with me.”
He says, “One of the significant problems that the agency has is that agents have to struggle all the time to remember whether they’re doing law enforcement work or regulatory work at any given moment.”
Haskell points out that when he was with the ABC, agents were “instructed not to carry their weapons or display badges when they were doing regulatory work in restaurants, hotels or liquor stores.”
But he says things have changed. “I ran into an ABC agent in a hotel here in the last year or so, and he had his Glock and his badge on his belt. I asked him why he was doing that, and he said he was there to protect the public. It was surprising to me to see the weapon in that setting. In my day,” Haskell adds, “they left them locked up in the car.”
The attorney is quick to add that he knows agent Warren personally, and that she’s “not really the cowboy type.” Haskell is somewhat familiar with Armstrong’s case and, though he wasn’t there, he says that when the young woman tried to leave without explaining herself it probably raised a red flag with the agent. “That kind of thing will set off law enforcement types,” he says.
The day after her confrontation with the agents, their investigation began in earnest. Armstrong says that Warren began calling on her clients and former employers, demanding answers about the bubbly brunette.
Investigator Warren’s first stop was the Wine Shoppe of Green Hills, where employees spoke glowingly of Armstrong.
“These people have obviously rehearsed their answers,” Warren wrote in investigation notes obtained by Armstrong’s lawyers. Warren also went to Armstrong’s former employer, one of the largest liquor distributors in the South, where she was praised as a good and honest employee. The dogged investigator then called on Cheekwood Gardens a few hours before Armstrong’s next tasting and told them, according to Armstrong, that she was “operating outside the law.” This scared her contact at Cheekwood so badly that Armstrong was afraid she would lose their business.
“I was afraid that this woman was going to ruin a reputation that I’ve worked so hard to build,” she says.
A few weeks later, Armstrong booked herself into jail, rounding out the experience with fingerprinting and a mug shot. Later that day, before she could go before a judge, the ABC dropped the charges.
Why would they make her go through the process of booking if they knew that they didn’t have a case against her?
“It’s definitely a power situation with them,” Armstrong says. She also speculates that they wanted to help agent Warren “save face.”
Agent Cawthon was on vacation and unavailable for comment, and ABC Director Danielle Elks couldn’t be reached as of press time.
As for Armstrong, she’s back in business spreading the good word about wine and trying to keep from running afoul of the law.
“I don’t want anything more to do with them,” the former outlaw says. “They make stuff up as they go along.”
The gentrification of East Nashville has done great harm to less-wealthy individuals in the area…
Nashville's a great town, but Memphis wins this contest, if contest it is. Staking a…
The desire for vengeance in those so wronged by the perpetrators of such heinous crimes…
So it seems this state is just doomed. If there is no one who will…
What did these 79 citizens do that was so heinous that we would want to…