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!
On April 15, a motley coalition of first-year and retiring members of Congress from both parties introduced a bill. The proposed legislation would restrict legal challenges to the interstate shipment of wine. Tom Wark, head of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, described it as “the most onerous consumer wine law since the passage of the 18th Amendment and the onset of Prohibition.” Wine Spectator obtained a copy of a draft bill written by the National Beer Wholesalers’ Association and compared it to H.R. 5034 and deemed them “largely identical.” (See the bill’s text here.)
Of course, bills get introduced all the time as fobs to political contributors and then they don’t make it very far down the arduous path to becoming law.
We have devised a threat-meter for this particular bill. Normally a bill like this would have zero chance in becoming law before the 111th Congress adjourns. But right now we are one notch above zero (neck level) with a “high shoulder” rating. Why? A few reasons that all boil down to the deep pockets and skill of those behind the legislation.
One worrisome aspect is that in order for the bill to become law, it must get voted out of committee. The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary committee, chaired by John Conyers from Michigan. Tom Wark has described Michigan as one state whose elected officials are “completely controlled” by wholesalers through their campaign contributions. (Michigan was the losing plaintiff in Granholm v. Heald, the 2005 case that liberalized wine shipments.) Indeed, the National Beer Wholesalers Association was one of the top 5 donors to John Conyers for the past two election cycles.
Hopefully, legislators will see this as the gross overreach that it is on the part of distributors. It would be great if reaction from wine enthusiasts turned the initiative in to the wholesalers’ last stand, legislatively. But that is unlikely.
We will keep you posted here if the threat level changes. You can also join the Facebook group Stop HR5034 (over 1,500 members already) for updates. And in case this bill does go anywhere, hit the comments with your thoughts about who we can send a huge amount of corks to–or other possible steps to effectively make our voices heard.
RH.R.5034 – Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE) Act of 2010. Sponsors are Rep. Bill Delehunt (D) MA; Rep. Howard Coble (R) NC; Rep. Mike Quigley (D) IL; Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) UT
Over on HuffPo, there’s a piece up about the Red Bicyclette/faux pinot saga. Jacqueline Friedrich, author of the guide The Wines of France, posted this comment as a reply. As it touches on some issues that astute readers will remember from Wine Politics, I reproduce her comment here with permission:
1) As a previous post-er said, rightly, Pinot Noir is a grape. It is not an appellation. Read more…
Friday was a rare moment in the legislative sun for the subject of wine direct shipping in the Maryland, where, as we discussed, is a felony to ship wine. Consumers and wine industry experts gave testimony before a committee. Tom Wark, executive director of the Specialty Wine Retailers’ Association, who was there writes via email: “Huge turnout in favor of shipping. Largest contingent of consumers I’ve ever seen at such a hearing. Yet, there is pessimism. The chair said what we all knew…that it was unlikely to pass. Distributor opposition, the “minors” red herring and fear of job losses.”
On Friday afternoon, Adam Borden resigned as executive director of the pro-reform group. The Baltimore Sun reported that he had lobbied aggressively for the cause–even calling a delegate’s mother–and ruffled some feathers. They quote him as saying he was resigning because he didn’t want his style to hurt the cause. His resignation letter is reproduced here in full after the jump.
Some key contacts:
Marylanders for Better Wine and Beer Laws and their page On Facebook
Delegate Dereck E. Davis, Chair, Economic Matters Committee
Senator Joan Carter Conway, Chair, Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee
House Bill (80/141); Senate Bill (26/47) Read more…
Maryland, the home of the Fightin’ Terps, threatens to turn its wine lovers into perps: The laws governing these five and a half million residents make it a felony to order wine online and have it shipped to their homes. To purchase wines, consumers residing Annapolis, Baltimore or along the Chesapeake must buy from a local store; comparison shopping through retailers on the internet or ordering directly from a winery is illegal. (Small wonder neighboring DC is the thirstiest non-state in the nation.)
Maryland is also home to 38 wineries today. Seeking to jump-start the domestic wine industry after Prohibition, the US Department of Agriculture turned to this mid-Atlantic state, opening an experimental winery in Beltsville, Maryland. Even though it was not long-lived, today’s wineries follow the early trail blazed by the Feds. The only problem: they cannot ship their wines to consumers in-state or out-of-state. In a recent survey (pdf), all but one winery respondents found this to negatively affect their business.
The keys to reforming the laws that have kept Marylanders locked out of the wine cellar for several decades may be within reach. Although the legislation has been introduced every year since 1981, Adam Borden, executive director of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, says that this year it has majority support in both houses.
But the legislative path is not without roadblocks. Who has screwcaps big enough to stand in the path of this legislation? Senator Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Health and Education committee, threatened to stifle the bill in committee despite six of nine members being co-sponsors. But today, a committee in the House will hear testimony on the issue.
Robert Parker, Maryland’s best-known wine consumer, will not be testifying today since he is traveling, according to Borden.
Thanks to shortfalls in state budgets, state authorities are increasingly looking to liberalize liquor distribution according to a piece in the WSJ yesterday. The issue is in play in at least Washington State, Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Vermont.
Privatization could be a mixed bag for wine enthusiasts. Read more…
Have you ever been in a New York wine store and thought there was something missing? Maybe gourmet cheese? Gift bags? Cigars? No, no–an ATM!
Well, if you’ve ever thought that then you will like Governor Paterson’s latest proposal to allow wine sales in food stores. He tried it last year but the measure was poorly thought out since it just focused on the grocery stores selling wine and not what would happen to current wine and spirits stores. Ultimately, it met resistance, and was dropped.
But it has been re-animated this budgetary year and this time the governor is trying to mollify the opposition by allowing wine stores to also sell Read more…
SIPPED: Scottish wine?
French chefs have urged President Sarkozy to seal a deal at the Copenhagen climate change talks this fall–or risk ceding some the world’s prime vineyard sites to…Scotland! [independent.ie]
The Village Voice looks at the jockeying behind the legislative initiative to allow supermarkets to sell wine.
SIPPED and SPIT: growth (of the viticultural kind)
The AP offers more reporting on the coming harvest “under economic cloud.”
SIPPED: a second life for those OWCs
Wine crates as serving trays.
SIPPED: tree planting
An Australian winery will attempt to offset its carbon emissions by planting up to 10,000 trees worldwide. Let’s hope the trees fare better than those planted for Coldplay! [Perth Now]
SPIT: bottled water
Mother Jones has a long article on the making of FIJI bottled water.