It's Time to Get Mad as Hell
Tell Your Congressman to Vote Against the Scarborough Wholesaler-Protection Bill
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
An alliance of wine-, liquor- and beer-wholesalers and puritanical congressmen is hoping to pass one of the worst pieces of legislation to be debated in the hallowed halls of Congress in recent memory.
It is known as the "21st Amendment Enforcement Act," a title that would certainly make George Orwell turn in his grave. Instead, it should be called for what it really is: "The Wine, Liquor and Beer Wholesaler Profit and Monopoly Preservation Act of 1999." The bill's lead sponsor is Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Republican congressman from the Florida panhandle, who has betrayed his party's commitment to the free market and personal liberty by helping to bring this piece of legislation to the floor of the House. (read the story.)
Scarborough's bill would give the attorneys general in each of the 50 states the power to bring suit in federal court to stop the interstate shipment of wine and other alcoholic beverages in violation of their state laws. That's right: Scarborough wants to fundamentally alter our federal system in order to clamp down on your right to choose how to buy your wine. It means that the attorney general of the state of Florida, which has a tough anti-shipment law on the books, could use the federal court to place an injunction against a California winery or a New York retailer to prohibit them from shipping rare and hard-to-find wines to a private citizen.
To explain this insanity, all you have to do is follow the money, as Deep Throat said. For the past three years, wholesalers have been seeking to change misdemeanor provisions against interstate shipments at the state level to felonies in order to protect their businesses. They see a threat to their distribution monopolies in the growing trade, fostered partially by the Internet, in home-delivered wines.
They've sought these felony provisions because a vintner who is convicted of a felony cannot hold the federal permit needed to operate a winery. So far, they've been successful in eight states, mostly in the South, due to intense lobbying campaigns. But their victories in the states, while impressive, have not been total. Wine industry forces have beaten back felony proposals in many states, so the wholesalers have now turned their sights on sweeping federal legislation in Congress. It helps that they can reward their friends with sizable campaign contributions. They want the big enchilada, and have resorted to the most nonsensical logic to achieve their goals.
They've used the smoke screen that direct shipment from wineries or retailers to consumers promotes underage access to alcohol in order to convince Congress that their cause is just. After all, who can be in favor of minors drinking alcohol? Yet they know this is not the real issue, and so do many Congressmen, though they won't admit it in public. In fact, the true nature of the wholesalers' campaign was exposed when an amendment to limit the scope of the Scarborough bill to underage access was defeated on July 20. This was done by the House Judiciary Committee when it approved Scarborough's bill for a vote by the full House. (M)To keep the smoke thick, the wholesalers have taken out ads in various newspapers and newsletters in the nation's capital, including the Washington Post, accusing direct-shippers of supplying alcohol to minors. They've also viciously called them modern-day bootleggers. They've helped local television stations set up purported "sting" operations, which have been widely reported, showing deliveries to underage teens, who have in fact been coached by adults who should have known better. I challenge anyone to show me an instance of wine being delivered to an underage youth who hasn't been helped by an adult.
Last year, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association (WSWA), the wholesaler lobbying organization, touted the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in its efforts to clamp down on direct shipment to minors. Earlier this year, however, even MADD couldn't abide the wholesalers' campaign and withdrew its support, calling the battle over direct shipments an industry issue. Also, the chief deputy director of California's Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, Manuel Espinosa, testified in a Senate hearing this spring that underage access through home deliveries was nonexistent in his state of 32 million people, which has long allowed direct shipments within its borders.
How many teens do you know who have the wherewithal and patience to make a call to a winery in a distant state, order a wine by its varietal name and vintage, give a credit card number, address and telephone number, and wait a week for party-time. Not too many, I reckon. It's a lot easier, cheaper and faster to get 22-year-old brother Billy to go down to the local convenience store and get a six-pack or a bottle of cheap whiskey.
However, the WSWA is still beating the drum of underage access as part of its strategy. Unfortunately, it is not the most powerful donor on the block. Instead, cast your eyes at that organization known as the National Beer Wholesalers Association. These guys have really big bucks, given that Americans drink a lot more beer than wine. The beer wholesalers are just incensed by the thought of the spread of microbrews distributed by beer-of-the-month clubs.
How low will direct-shipment foes stoop? Do you remember the shoot-out at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.? Just follow the hysteria. In the aftermath of the shooting, Congress debated a new juvenile justice bill that sought to address the problems posed by the Littleton tragedy. The main focus was gun control, but the wholesalers were almost successful in pulling a fast one and attaching the felony enforcement provision to the proposed legislation. What do gun control and home delivery of wine have in common? Nothing, but you should realize that it is easier to buy an assault weapon in this country than it is to buy a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and have it delivered to your home from out of state.
Of course, the wholesalers have plenty of other arrows in their quiver. They'll cite tax-collection problems and unfair competition from out-of-state retailers as some of the other threats posed by home delivery. But that isn't the consumer's fault. The problem is the wholesalers are still trying to defend a distribution system invented more than 60 years ago which no longer adequately serves wine drinkers and the states they live in.
It's sad to say that wine drinkers are now faced with the equivalent of a legislative Dunkirk in Congress. The wholesaler's blitzkrieg seems poised for success. The Senate has already passed a felony shipment amendment sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. The wholesalers seem so sure of victory that they've sought to limit debate on the House floor, with the support of the Republican leadership, and go directly to a vote, which could come as soon as early next week.
Two California congressmen, Democrat Mike Thompson and Republican George Radanovich, who represent winegrowing districts, have mounted courageous campaigns to defeat Scarborough's bill. In addition, the American Vintners Association, the Wine Institute and the Free the Grapes organization have also been at the barricades. None are optimistic they will be successful given the lobbying prowess of the wholesalers, but there's always room for hope.
In the meantime, let your local congressman know how you feel--especially those of you represented by Rep. Scarborough in Panama City and Pensacola (you can email them from www.house.gov/writerep/). To win on the House floor with the normal debate procedures suspended, the wholesalers will need the votes of two-thirds of the House membership, rather than a simple majority. This is a case where YOU can make a difference by telling your congressman the true nature of Scarborough's bill, HR2031. Write a letter, make a phone call, send an email. Make your voice heard for your right to choose. It's time for wine lovers across the nation to stand up and say, as Peter Finch did in the film "Network," "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."
Congressman Joe Scarborough
127 Cannon H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-4136
For more on the direct-shipping issue, read Wine Wars.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)