FOOD- DISH- All shook up: VaVino rocked by new state law

During the past few weeks, diners may have noticed the absence of some Virginia wines on area wine lists. That's because on July 1 a new Virginia wine law went into effect prohibiting Virginia wineries from self-distributing. From now on, Virginia winemakers must hire a distributor or a wholesaler to move their products. In April 2005, a federal judge ruled that self-distribution violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against a state giving preference to its own businesses over those from another.

"It was a big step backward for the Virginia wine industry," says Michael Shaps, owner of VAvino on the Downtown Mall. As a result of the legislation, Shaps says, his wine bar and bistro, once an exclusive showcase of Virginia wines, has had to go international, offering wines from all over the world. According to Shaps, the change in concept was a no-brainer. "Because of the legislation, many of the wines we used to carry are unavailable," he says, "and the ones that are available are often too expensive." 

But not everyone thinks the new legislation is a bad idea. In fact, Brad McCarthy of Blenheim Vineyards thinks it's an important step forward in legitimizing Virginia wines in the eyes of the world. 

"This will force Virginia wineries to operate in the real world," he says. "Price per quality, that's what distributors look for. This is how wine is sold. And that's the reality that people in Virginia have to address." 

McCarthy points out that Virginia winemakers have a choice: remain a tourist winery, selling wines in the tasting room, or, like everyone else in the business, get out there and find a distributor willing to represent them because the wines taste good. 

"Virginia isn't famous for its wine yet," says McCarthy. "This is a stepping stone."

Anon diners roil restaurants

What are the Top Ten restaurants in Charlottesville? Although Dish isn't in the business of rating or reviewing restaurants, the popular online dining guide, is. With over 350 local eateries listed on the site, and over 9,000 unique visitors every month (on average visitors also view 10 pages per visit) the site has Hookville dinners browsing and restaurants trembling. 

At first glance, the idea seems simple enough. Visitors to the site are allowed to anonymously rate local restaurants and make comments on their dining experiences. It's a lot like the travel site, where people can anonymously rate and comment on the hotels and resorts where they've stayed. What better way to find out if the hotel has rats or lumpy beds? Likewise, what better way to find out which local restaurants are the best? 

But are we getting the real story? Do sites like Tripadvisor and Charlottesville-Dining really present an unbiased portrait? 

Charlottesville-Dining was recently featured in the Hook's Fearless Consumer column after a local restaurant took offense at comments describing several food poisoning incidents at the restaurant. (Incidentally, similar comments have appeared on Craiglist's Charlottesville page under "rants and raves.") 

The restaurant claimed the website owner was being irresponsible, allowing his users to post anonymous, unsubstantiated comments. The website owner shot back, saying he had simply created an open forum for people to discuss their dining experiences, and that censoring or monitoring public comments would defeat the whole purpose of the site. 

The truth, it appears, lies somewhere in between. While Charlottesville-Dining presents people with a unique opportunity to discuss their dining experiences, it also opens local restaurants to rant-like abuse, false accusations, as well as unwarranted praise. For example, what if an ex-employee has an axe to grind? Or what if a restaurant were to tell its employees to log in and post rave reviews? Doesn't the website owner have some responsibility to monitor and guide the discussion?

"Originally, I was pretty lax in allowing ratings and comments," admits Fred Telegdy, who launched Charlottesville-Dining in 2002. " I didn't have too many preventive measures in place. However, I was able to see rather quickly that some people were taking advantage of this situation."

Telegdy starting using IP verification to monitor individual posters, making sure that cross referencing (ex: "Joe's restaurant sucks, you should all go to Bill's place.") and multiple comments weren't coming from the same source. 

"In the end, the system is not perfect," says Telegdy, "nor will it ever be. But it's to a level now that I feel comfortable that the number of fake reviews, both positive and negative, are held to an acceptable minimum. And, in the cases where something slips by me, there are users who have sent me correspondence to point out questionable comment behavior." 

That may do little to soothe a restaurant falsely accused of poisoning its customers, but nobody said free speech was pretty. As long as Internet users are allowed to say what they want on sites like these, we're bound to get the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The new law meant Michael Shaps had to change VAvino's focus.