The 21st century has been a tumultuous, albeit productive, one for Drinkers' Rights, were one so inclined to dub the movement. The tug-of-war over where, when and how alcohol can be bought and consumed has played out everywhere from local community boards to state legislatures to the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court.
In the past 10 years, interstate direct-to-consumer shipping has vastly expanded for wineries, but contracted for retailers; wholesalers continue to thrive and exert political influence despite claims that deregulated wine markets would drive them out of business; politicians perpetuate stereotypes of politicians by pandering to special interests. Yet somehow one group affected by each development—consumers—never seems to have a say. The founders of a new wine lovers' advocacy group hope they can change that.
The American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) debuted last month. Its manifesto:
"The unique needs and desires of the American wine consumer have for too long been ignored by lawmakers as special-interest groups have used the legal and regulatory system to protect their own interests at the expense of consumers. This is neither fair nor in the interest of the wine consumer. Wine consumers have the right to be heard, to be part of the entire process devoted to the regulation of wine and to have access to the broad range of products in the national marketplace. Anything less is unacceptable."
Few could disagree that consumers do, in fact, deserve to be heard when their elected officials are making alcohol law. The coalition’s first step is to get the word out, both about itself and its initiatives.
By sending AWCC representatives to hearings and hiring lobbyists where appropriate, the organization will focus on four drinkers'-rights battlegrounds to start: direct shipment of wine from both wineries and retailers, wine sales in grocery stores, restaurant corkage and BYO laws, and privatization of state-run monopolies on wine sales and distribution.
So who’s behind the AWCC? President David White is a public relations pro and Washington insider who once wrote speeches in the administration of Pres. George W. Bush and now runs the Terroirist wine blog. He conceived the coalition with AWCC executive director Tom Wark, another marketing and publicity pro behind another wine blog, Fermentation. Wark also serves as executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers (formerly the Specialty Wine Retailers Association), an organization which shares some of the AWCC's goals, particularly retailer shipping.
“It was around two years ago that Tom said, ‘We need an organization that represents consumers,’” White said. “Seniors in our country have the AARP. Gun owners have the National Rifle Association. … These are organizations that are member-driven and reflect the interests of tens of thousands of members.”
“The wholesalers act as a unit, and they are a powerful, powerful force,” White said. “And they’re always getting a seat at the table. Lawmakers, until this point, have never had a way to [listen] to wine consumers and get a sense of where they stand on issues.”
As a consumer advocacy group, the AWCC is preceded by several organizations created to promote wine drinkers' rights on a state level, including Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine and South Dakotans for Better Wine Laws.
Nationally, Free the Grapes, a nonprofit founded in 1998, promotes consumer choice in wine, particularly in regard to direct shipping. Though it is a trade association, it recruits consumer participation where their interests overlap those of its winery and retailer members.
"Free the Grapes was developed from a winery standpoint, but there's probably some good synergy that could happen [between Free the Grapes and the AWCC]," said Free the Grapes executive director Jeremy Benson. Wark agreed, saying the AWCC would "absolutely" work with any organization such as Free the Grapes that shared its goals.
An association with a larger, established advocacy group could be just the ticket for the AWCC, which does not yet have strength in numbers. After its first week, it had just over 100 members. An annual AWCC membership is priced at $35, a number the staff came to based on the price of a high-quality bottle of wine.
If and when the coalition can claim thousands of members, White said, they have no plans to get into the campaign contribution game, which has long been a powerful weapon of the wholesaler lobby.
For now, the AWCC's most important work lies in publicizing the American Wine Consumer Coalition. (In terms of Google-search rankings of AWCCs, as of this morning it ranked just above the Atkinson (N.H.) Women's Civic Club and below the Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Afghan Wireless Communication Company.)
So will the new AWCC be able to make a difference with lawmakers? Not without the support of wine lovers. The real question is, are wine lovers motivated enough to sacrifice the price of a bottle of wine for a chance to be heard?