The New York Times ran a front-page story on Congressman Mike Thompson recently. Thompson’s district includes Napa and he is also a grape grower; the article made this seem like a conflict of interest. I’d dissect the story and its shortcomings but Mike Steinberger has already done that on his blog, thus saving me the trouble.
The article did remind me of the Congressional Wine Caucus, an informal, bipartisan group of over 200 members of Congress–“the anti-Tea Party” as @sippingsister put it–that Thompson heads. Although most caucuses rarely meet, I placed a call to Thompson’s office (as well as the Wine Institute) requesting the names of the members of the Caucus. My thinking was that these members would presumably be stalwarts in supporting wine consumers and opposing the nefarious HR 1161 if that well-financed bill should ever see the light of day in the chamber. Sadly both responded to say that the list of members is not available to the public. That’s too bad since wine is becoming more popular in congressional districts every year across America as we are now the thirstiest wine country in the world. Also, wine in America is frustratingly intertwined with political machinations. Since it’s not hard to find out who is on, say, the Congressional Bike Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus, you’d think wine would be no different.
If the membership list ever does surface, I hope there’s no overlap between Caucus members and the 94 cosponsors of HR 1161. That would have more than a whiff of inconsistency.
Last week in the NYT, Eric Asimov highlighted the wine program at Nice Matin, a restaurant on the Upper West Side that has remarkable breadth of offerings, depth of vintages and sharp pricing. This apparent wine lover’s idyll was not always this way: only in the past few years have the owners built up the wine program, in part by purchasing the cellars of now-defunct restaurants. Further, the wine director “prowls through a network of collectors and winery owners, seeking mature older vintages to add to the list.”
Across town and upstate, specialty wine shops such as Chambers Street Wines and Crush Wine and Spirits or Grapes the Wine Company, often broker collections of rare older wines that individual collectors are selling. And even though wine auctions have shifted to Hong Kong with astonishing speed over the past couple of years, the gavel still does come down on wine lots at places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s here in New York.
All of these facets of the wine business mean that, with a bit of effort, a wine enthusiast can hunt down an enormous range of rare bottles in New York. It is arguably the best city on earth for wine lovers.
But the status quo is under threat thanks to new proposed legislation in Albany. Read more…
He’s not going to rank up there with Rosa Parks. But Terry Mulligan is trying to have his illegal actions make a larger point.
The Canadian “media personality” is willfully transporting wine across provincial lines. According to this story, he will stand on the border on May 13 and take a bottle of wine made in British Columbia into Alberta. Then he will take a bottle of wine made in Ontario back into BC with him. Such activity is illegal. But he will let the Mounties know in advance! The lack of intra-provincial shipping is “killing small, boutique wineries” and the Liquor Control Boards amount to “a cash grab” and are run by “bullies,” Mulligan says.
Sure, the event is choreographed. But just imagine if an American celebrity stood up for sanity in wine shipments in a similar way? Will Oprah have a case of wine sent to her condo in Chicago from an out of state retailer (which is illegal) and have the cameras rolling when it gets there? Or a chef like Grant Achatz? Or Martha Stewart who actually markets a wine? That would certainly bring a lot attention to the matter.
On a related note, the WSJ weighs in on HR 1161 with an editorial in today’s paper. Nugget: “CARE will reduce choices and raise prices for consumers.”
Last year, a rag-tag coalition introduced a piece of legislation that threatened wine shipments. It’s not even Halloween but the scary news is that, like Poltergeist II, this horror show is baaaaaack.
Now known officially as HR 1161, and unofficially as the Wholesaler Protection Act, the bill seeks to restrict legal challenges to the interstate shipment of wine (and beer and spirits) and keep the legislation that affects wine shipping at the state level. The reason that’s scary is because the judiciary is the consumer’s best ally in the fight to liberalize wine shipments–with more options to purchase wines, many consumers will get lower prices and a better selection than what is available in their local markets. Legislators, desperate for (re)election, frequently accept donations from wholesalers who seek to prevent freeing up trade in wine. The Beer Wholesalers wrote the legislation last time and the text is virtually identical this time.
The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association recognizes the threat Read more…
Will this stiff drink, now on the table in Harrisburg, lead to the end of the PLCB? The state-run system that bestows such snappy names on its wine stores as #5801 is in a rough patch. As seen in the picture at right (and the accompanying Times story details), the opening hours of this store are limited and the prices, selection and knowledge of the staff may not be all that great either at some state-owned stores. The new kiosks have bombed. Consumer dissatisfaction may be growing as is chatter about privatization. Even though previous governors have floated the idea only to meet with failure, the stars seem to be aligning for reform. While this is something most Pennsylvania wine consumer would likely raise a glass of hard-to-find wine to, the logic that will carry the day for public officials is about money. Read more…
The August 30 issue of the New Yorker contains a much-discussed profile of the Koch brothers, the billionaires bankrolling the Tea Party and libertarian organizations. But who wants a Tea Party when a Wine Party would be much more fun?
The words “billionaire” and “Koch” are familiar to ardent wine enthusiasts; the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar depicts William Koch, industrialist and disgruntled wine collector, as a lawsuit-wielding sheriff bent on ridding the fine wine world of counterfeits. However, the brothers in the New Yorker story are actually Charles and David who still control Koch Industries; after acrimony came to a head in the family company, they bought out William (and his brother Freddie) in 1983. Litigation simmered among the brothers for the following seventeen years.
Taking a page from his brothers’ playbook, what if Bill were to fund a Wine Party, bent on liberalizing the country’s wine shipping laws? He has already burnished (or tarnished, depending on your perspective) his reputation with high-end collectors. But restrictive interstate shipping laws plague wine enthusiasts in many states. Although there has been a greater liberalization of shipping laws from wineries to consumers in the past five years, laws governing wine retailers-to-consumers remain much more restrictive with only about a dozen allowing the practice. This stifles innovation in wine retail and reduces selections to broad swathes of consumers, while keeping prices high in many markets. Judicial challenges remain the key weapon in this fight and Bill Koch has much experience in litigation.
Further, wholesalers of beer, wine and spirits have initiated a legislative campaign to freeze wine shipping laws as they are. While this effort seems be going nowhere, they will doubtlessly return in the next legislative session and probably be better prepared. Thus having financial largesse on the pro-shipping side would make this a more formidable fight in the legislative arena, where, all too often, money counts for more than votes. But citizen unrest can be fomented with some Champagne bottles sabered as effigies of unblocking the system. Above all, the wine party would not just have to be against interstate shipping laws but could be for many things, such as discussion, eating (come on, who is anti-eating), and, of course, truth!
Bill Koch has already written himself into the story of fine and rare wine in America. By diverting a portion of his wine funds to this more populist approach, he could earn the adoration of Joe Wine Sixpack.
Have you ever met someone and talked with her about a topic, only to find out that–unknown to you–she is a key player in that very topic ? That happened to me about a week ago.
I gave the keynote talk to 250 attendees at the annual dinner of the Boston Patent Lawyers Association. The organizers wanted to tie it into my book, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink. So for dinner I selected wines that tied in with the first three items in the subtitle and then used those wines to tell stories about the material in the book. (They were the William Fevre, Montmains, Premier Cru Chablis 2007; Domaine Huet, Le Mont, Vouvray (sec) 2007; and Ridge Geyserville 2007.) In the talking about the politics of American wine, I discussed many of the legal tussles, particularly around the issue of direct shipping.
It turns out that the patent lawyers were honoring Judge Rya Zobel of the U.S. District Court that evening. Born in 1931 in Germany, Judge Zobel was vibrant and lively and delivered funny remarks from the podium. Only at the dinner table did I learn that it was Judge Zobel who decided the case Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins. In that case, she ruled that a Massachusetts law that essentially prohibited “large” wineries (over 30,000 gallons production) from selling directly to consumers was unconstitutional since it effectively barred 98% of out-of-state wine while allowing 100% of in-state wine from being sold directly. In January, that decision was upheld on appeal at the Circuit court; the decision will not be appealed to the Supreme Court.
I opened my remarks by raising my glass on behalf of wine lovers to Judge Zobel!