More wine-shipping politics
Tugged in opposite directions by contending wings of its conservative political base, the Bush White House is apparently keeping its hands carefully out of the contentious debate over direct interstate wine shipping to consumers, a thorny issue that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider later this year.
The Court's deadline for interested parties to file "amicus" ("friend of the court") briefs on either side of the argument passed last week without comment from the White House. Although the Executive Branch is not usually loath to take a position on policy issues before the court through its Solicitor General's office, concern about offending either pro-trade or anti-alcohol conservatives makes this topic a good one to avoid during a heated presidential election campaign.
"If you're looking at the parties to this controversy - business and evangelicals - then the last thing you want is to pit one against another. Better to punt," The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told Scripps-Howard reporter Michael Doyle in a recent interview.
Doyle's article was distributed this week by Scripps-Howard News Service but, as best I can determine, it has not been widely published.
Those of you who've been following this issue, which I discussed in the April 6, 2004 Wine Advisor, shortly after the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases on the point from Michigan and New York, will recall that it's not a typical "liberal-vs.-conservative" issue but one that pits two conservative principles against each other: Free trade versus states' rights.
Pro-shipping forces, including California's Wine Institute trade group and many smaller wineries, argue that interstate shipping is a simple matter of free, unrestricted interstate commerce. Those opposed to interstate shipping of wine and other alcoholic beverages - led by the well-funded and politically powerful alcoholic-beverage wholesalers, at the head of an uneasy alliance of liquor distributors, state tax collectors and anti-alcohol evangelicals - argue that the issue falls under the Constitutional right of individual states to make decisions not specifically reserved to the federal government.
The debate doesn't merely divide along conservative issues; it brings heavyweight conservatives into battle on opposite sides of the fray. The lead attorney for the pro-shipping forces is Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor best remembered for his aggressive pursuit of President Bill Clinton. Noted conservative attorneys on the anti-consumer side include close Bush ally Miguel Estrada and former federal Judge Robert Bork.
Pro-shipping forces argue that simple equity demands that consumers be able to order wine by mail or Internet commerce as freely as they can purchase toys, clothing or books. The antis' arguments are more convoluted, primarily because it would be impolitic for the wholesale lobby to acknowledge that its profits are the real issue; accordingly, the primary thrust of their well-orchestrated public-relations campaign (featuring the slogan "Point. Click. Drink.") focuses on the possibility that underaged drinkers would have easy access to booze if online sales aren't restricted; a secondary argument claims that states would lose tax revenue if interstate sales to consumers become widespread.
Look for the publicity battle to rage throughout the summer, but bear in mind that the final decision rests on only nine votes ... those of the Supreme Court justices. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in December, with a decision to follow next year.
My April 6 article summarizing the issues before the court, "Supreme wine decision," is in the archives at
Here's a recent editorial argument in favor of free trade, "Let wine purchases flow freely," published in June in The Detroit News:
For a look at the wholesalers' position, visit the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America's policy page on direct shipment of wine to consumers,
As I've observed before, readers in other parts of the world (except possibly Canada, which has somewhat similar wine-sales barriers between provinces) may find this entire situation puzzling. But for U.S. wine lovers who live in restrictive states, it's a real-life concern, one that may make it difficult or impossible to purchase many wines from smaller producers who haven't chosen, or can't afford, to distribute their wines locally.
According to The National Association of American Wineries, 20 states entirely ban or severely limit interstate shipments of wine: Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.
Thirteen states - specifically California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia - have declared "reciprocity," meaning that they allow wine shipment between vendors and consumers in participating states. In some cases, however, this privilege is limited. Colorado wine lovers, for instance, may legally purchase wine by mail order only after having visited a winery in person to make the arrangements. Hawaii, Oregon and Wisconsin require consumers to get a permit before ordering wine online, and Minnesota, although permitting mail-order wine buying, forbids Internet sales.
The remaining states generally impose significant barriers to consumer purchases of wine by mail or Internet order, typically requiring permits, limiting quantities, or permitting the shipment only of wines not otherwise available through in-state distributors.
It should also be noted that enforcement is variable. A few particularly Puritanical states aggressively enforce the laws, but many others - including some with the most stringent written regulations - make little or no enforcement effort.
Want to look up the laws that prevail where you live? Wine Institute offers a thorough, state-by-state analysis in its "Direct Shipment Laws by State for Wineries" page,
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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004