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A Progressive State With Backward Wine Laws

In Massachusetts, gay couples can marry, but they can't buy wine in grocery stores

Eric Arnold
Posted: November 30, 2006

A lot of my friends seem to think that my job at Wine Spectator involves sitting around all day tasting wine. It rarely does. What I do far more often is flip through pages and pages of legislative documents. It's part of my job to cover ever-changing wine laws in each of the 50 states so we all know what we can buy, from whom and how. And from my explorations of complex wine legalese, I've come to one simple conclusion:

I'm never living in Massachusetts again. Ever.

I spent four years there as a college student and two more working. To stay in Boston for six years would certainly suggest that I found a lot to like about living there, and I did. But in the past year the state has gone out of its way to say, "If you like wine, don't live here."

First, a brief recap. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that states have to treat in- and out-of-state wineries equally when it comes to direct shipping of wine. You either allow direct shipping for everyone, or for no one. Then along came Massachusetts, with a bill that technically, on paper, allowed direct shipping--but only if the winery in question produces less than 30,000 gallons of wine a year and hasn't been represented by a Massachusetts wholesaler in the past six months. Which is basically nobody outside the state, thereby making direct shipping essentially impossible. The bill became law after a veto and an override.

The architects of the bill, primarily Sen. Mark Morrissey (D), made no secret that they were trying to protect the liquor wholesalers' business. "If you have [a retailer] that has a relationship with a wholesaler and you're now going to allow [a winery] to do an end run and cherry-pick the accounts and leave the wholesalers doing all the marketing and legwork, it didn't seem fair to us," he told me at the time. Somehow, he believed that an individual ordering one or two cases directly from a winery is a threat to the wholesalers. I can't really figure out why, since wholesalers don't complain about a lack of business in states where direct shipping is already permitted.

But hey, that's politics. I accept that. However, then we had this month's election, which showed that it's not just politics in Massachusetts anymore. It's fear mongering.

The Massachusetts Food Association had rounded up enough signatures to get a question on this year's ballot which, if passed, would allow the state's grocery stores to sell wine. As expected, the liquor stores objected, and this became the hottest issue in Massachusetts since gay marriage (now legal there). As the election neared, more campaign money was spent on both sides--close to $12 million total--than on any ballot question in the history of the state.

Running right up to Election Day, polls indicated Massachusetts voters wanted to be able to pick up a bottle of Pinot with their frozen pizza. They supported Question 1 by a 2-to-1 margin. But at the last minute, the liquor stores played the ace up their sleeve: a TV ad featuring the chief of police in Somerville, Mass.

"It's not just about wine in supermarkets," chief Robert Bradley said in the ad. "It's about convenience stores. It's about gas-station mini-marts being able to sell alcohol. That's what we're talking about here. Don't be fooled by Question 1."

The measure failed.

The Somerville police chief was correct that if the measure had passed, convenience stores would have been able to apply for retail liquor licenses. But does it really matter? Show me a state that allows wine to be sold in convenience stores where the result has been a rise in crime and general hysteria. I haven't been there recently, but I'm sure that's exactly what life is like in Seattle, because in the state of Washington you can buy a bottle of Ravenswood with your dried spaghetti and jar of Prego on your way home from work. It must be a terrible place to live!

So officially, the law of the land in Massachusetts is now: Gay marriage OK; better consumer choice and convenience with wine not OK--a threat to societal stability. How is it that Massachusetts can be progressive and accepting of one thing, but not the other? It doesn't seem logical.

The one bright spot in all this is that the state is being sued by some consumers represented by former Whitewater/Clinton-Lewinsky prosecutor Kenneth Starr, now dean of Pepperdine Law School. Hopefully this lawsuit is the first step toward Massachusetts citizens getting whatever wine they want, whether they're newbies, collectors or couples getting married (gay or straight) who want to have a special wine at the reception.

Until Massachusetts welcomes wine drinkers, I think I'll stay right here in New York. I can't buy wine in a grocery store here either, but at least I can now have it shipped to me. And nobody here is trying to scare me into thinking that's a bad thing.

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