Shortly after pulling off a guest chef job for Parducci Wine Cellars, and having fielded offers from two other wineries to consider future culinary collaborations, I turned my attention to Sutter Home Winery’s 2010 Build a Better Burger Contest.

With dreams of my own big fat prize check, I went to Sutter home winery’s website.

I had a mental leap of creativity that would ensure that my submission would be unique, and I thought it a genuine stand out recipe idea, for good or ill; I was either go to turn heads or stomachs.

Visiting Sutter Home’s Build a Better Burger, I was thrilled to find that the prize had been increased to $100,000 for 2010, the contest’s 20th Anniversary. My elation turned to confusion, then unhappiness, as I read of an exclusion that would effect me.

The Rules

2. The Contest is open to U.S. residents, aged twenty-one (21) years or older, except for the following:
(a)  Residents of California, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories or possessions…

I pored over Sutter Home’s burger contest site, and found some information regarding the exclusion of Californians, and other relevant information.

Sutter Home’s Burger Contest History Page

Shortly after the 1998 cook-off, Sutter Home Public Relations Director Stan Hock made the bleak announcement that “this was our last Build a Better Burger® contest. We are not discontinuing the promotion because of any dissatisfaction on our part but because the State of California has changed its regulations on contests. It is no longer legal for us to sponsor any contest in which the prize exceeds one dollar And that’s no prize, because for a buck you can only get one of those other burgers, not the one-in-a-million variety but just another one of the eight or twenty billion or so.”

As it turned out, the legal experts at Sutter Home determined that the new California law only made California residents ineligible to participate in the contest, joining the state of Utah where the contest is also illegal, so BBB was able to continue after all.

With Californians now ineligible to participate in BBB, [in 1999] an effort was made to generate more entries to make up for losing the state that had generated 50 to 60 percent of the contest submissions. A winning recipe was chosen each day from Memorial Day through Labor Day and awarded $100. Sutter Home wine bottles on grocery store shelves sported bottleneck brochures containing burger recipes, mail-in grocery and wine rebate offers, and instantly-redeemable coupons for mustard and cheeses.

In an effort to make it possible [in 2002] for Californians to once again participate in the contest, the American Culinary Federation presented the competition, with Sutter Home and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as sponsors. Finalists were chosen in two divisions: Best Beef Burger (Grand Prize) and Best Alternative Burger.

[In 2008] Jeffrey Starr, Sutter Home’s Culinary Director and Executive Chef, announced the winners and Bob Torkelson, Sutter Home’s President, presented them with giant checks and arty trophies.

Anthony Torres, Principal and Senior Vice President Administration of Trinchero Family Estates, welcomed the [2009] invited guests gathered under the big tent. Wendy Nyberg, TFE Senior Director of Marketing, announced the news that BBB would be doubling the Grand Prize money for 2010, making the contest the highest paying annual cooking contest in America!…Roger Trinchero, Vice Chairman and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates, joined his nephew Anthony Torres in welcoming all of the finalists back to the stage. James McNair announced the winners, who were presented with checks.

I contacted Sutter Home to ask about the exclusion of millions of Americans, roughly 12 percent of the US population, through Facebook, and the unsatisfying response came quickly.

“Hey John – Unfortunately, Californians are excluded from both Wine & Burger University and the Build a Better Burger competition due to California alcohol laws.”

I also e-mailed Sutter Home and asked for a more detailed response for a possible future article (you are reading it now). Again, the response was timely, and although more detailed, it was no more satisfying.

Dear John,

Thank you for taking the time to write to us regarding the Build a Better Burger Contest. We are as frustrated as you that we cannot offer the Build A Better Burger Contest or other sweepstakes promotions to California residents. However under California law and regulations, a California wine producer is prohibited from giving a California consumer anything of value over $1.

Under California Business and Professions Code Section 25600, no licensee, i.e. alcoholic beverage manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer, shall give any premium, gift, or free goods in connection with the sale or distribution of any alcoholic beverage, except as provided by rules that shall be adopted by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverages Control (ABC). The ABC adopted regulation 106(j) which states that a supplier is prohibited from the giving of any premium, gift or goods of any sort, whether by way of sweepstakes, drawings, prizes, cross-merchandising promotions with a nonalcoholic beverage product or products or any other method if the value of the premium, gift or goods given to an individual exceeds $3.00 with respect to beer, $1.00 with respect to wine or $5.00 with respect to distilled spirits.

Until California residents convince the state legislature to change the law, we unfortunately have to prohibit California residents from entering our contest and sweepstakes. Maybe you can rally California consumers to work toward changing the law. We would love to open up the Build A Better Burger Contest to California consumers!

Graciela DeHaro

Trinchero Family Estates

Sutter Home Winery

While I think Graciela DeHaro was somewhat graceless in her communication to me – Trinchero Family Estates might have sought a solution in the California legislature anytime in the last 10 years rather than suggest the impetus for change is mine – I was inspired to see what I could do.

I initially contacted Mike Korson who heads up the Santa Rosa District Office of the California ABC, responsible for matters in Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties.

Mike Korson directed me to contact Alma Yamada, District Administrator at the ABC HQ for the Trade Enforcement Unit.

I called and left a message for Ms. Yamada.

Chris Albrecht, Deputy Division Chief at HQ and member of the CA ABC’s Executive Management Team, overseer of the Trade Enforcement Unit, called me back.

My initial reading of 25600 and 106(j) did not lead me to conclude that the prohibition for Californians exists, the prize earning event was unrelated to the sale, distribution, or promotion of wine and 25600/106 did not obtain, but I am neither a lawyer nor certain that I was reading the most recent versions of the code and regulation. I found it odd that the California legislature could conceivably pass rules that punish only Californians, at least as it applies Sutter Home’s burger contest.

Sutter Home Winery/Trinchero Family Estates, a multimillion dollar wine industry leader, certainly makes political contributions to ensure access for situations like this. It boggles my mind that a smart and successful business would ignore the opportunity to correct an unnecessary inequity, but seems to take Californians for granted.

Albrecht did not understand how Sutter Home could possibly think they could hold the event in California, regardless of where the competitors hail from; he believes that the contest is a gross violation of 25600 and 106, and the case law that come from tests of 25600 and 106, preclude not only Californians from the contest but anyone from any place as the contest increases Sutter Home’s brand awareness, is held in California, and a gift/prize is being awarded here in California. Albrecht said excluding Californians from participating in the contest was had no bearing on whether 25600 and 106 were being followed or violated.

I find it funny that the ABC had no idea that Sutter Home ran such a contest, Food Network’s broadcast of the event is pretty showy; ironically, it took a suggestion from Sutter Home that I become involved to bring it to the attention of the ABC. While there are many wineries that run similar, smaller profile, contests – and do allow Californians, I did not mention them to the ABC. I only mentioned the Sutter Home event because Sutter Home sent me out on my own to do their work for them.

In view of the Albrecht’s statement that the burger contest is not legal, I asked Albrecht about options, and it was determined that Sutter Home could hold the contest out of state, in Las Vegas (where outdoor grilling in the Summer sun is close to Hell) as an example, and that a contest out of state could include competitors from California.

Laws are amended over time, and case law further clarifies what a law means. Albrecht explained that the giant checks, the enormous cash prizes, awarded at the California winery location, with television and other media coverage, generate enormous benefit and promotion. The recent June 11, 2010 Food Network rebroadcast of the 2005 Burger Contest featured hundreds of Sutter Home logo sightings, and the many if not most of the burger recipes chosen included Sutter Home wine as an ingredient; pretending that there exists no promotional effort or benefit on Sutter Home’s part stretches credulity. The winery owners and officers are tied to the giant prize checks by the winery’s own contest website.

Giant Sutter Home logo branded prize awards made at California winery site – as seen on TV

I shared my initial initial findings in an e-mail to Graciela DeHaro, asking for a response. In a very short time, Ron Larson, Sutter Home’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel called me directly.

Larson had never heard of Albrecht, but said that he had determined the appropriateness of the contest rules and operation with the “ABC’s head of enforcement Matt.”

While I assume Larson referred to Matthew Botting, General Counsel for the CA Dept. of ABC; in a follow up, Albrecht wrote that he was, “not aware of any specific conversation between Sutter Home’s counsel and General Counsel Matt Botting or any other Department employee, but I can assure you that during our conversation, I provided accurate and consistent information on the subject.”

I do not know whether the contest is legal, but I would encourage Sutter Home and Trinchero Family Estates to work to make it so for Californians – the CA ABC does not operate in a vacuum; Sutter Home can and should use whatever political influence a multi million dollar California business leader, with decades of past political contributions to pave the way, enjoys to create an environment where California wineries can hold contests, with prizes over $1, that generate promotional benefit and feature branding and press coverage, without fear of bending and breaking the law.

It is obvious that Sutter Home must see the effect of 25600/106 differently than Albrecht, and I will cut and paste any comments left by Sutter Home or the CA ABC in response to this post into the body of this post where it will be more visible.

Contest or not, I tried out my revolutionary burger idea and can report that the cutting edge ingredient and preparation that inspired me to go to Sutter Home’s website in the first place was a complete and total disaster. I have subsequently come up with a delicious new twist, a burger recipe unique to me, and look forward to the day Sutter home is able to include Californians again.