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Congressional Hearing in California Airs Vintners' Woes With Washington

Jeff Morgan
Posted: August 11, 1999

In an unusual move, a group of U.S. Representatives came to California yesterday for a Congressional hearing focused entirely on wine, allowing local vintners to vent their frustration about recent legislative activity on direct shipments to consumers, as well as wine labeling and export issues.

The Aug. 10 event, which was the first such meeting to occur in eight years, took place in Lodi, a winegrowing community in California's Central Valley. About 150 winemakers and grape growers attended the House Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture hearing, which was chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. He was joined by three fellow California congressmen: Democrat Mike Thompson and Republicans George Radanovich and Doug Ose.

Much of the discussion at the hearing centered on the 21st Amendment Enforcement Act passed by the House earlier this month. The bill (HR 2031), sponsored by Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., discourages interstate shipments of wine directly to consumers by allowing states to go to federal court to seek injunctions against companies that violate their laws. Many vintners fear that the Scarborough bill is a harbinger of tougher laws in more states.

Other topics included whether varietal labeling should be permitted on wine-based drinks that use fruit flavorings; government support of agricultural research; and Sen. Strom Thurmond's recent amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill that would eliminate government marketing subsidies for wine exports.

But the politics behind the Scarborough bill, and the myriad of complicated state shipping laws, provided the liveliest topics of discussion -- although little debate was in evidence, as most of those attending were in agreement on the issues. "The Scarborough bill is nothing more than a turf battle," said Thompson. "The [wholesale wine] distributors don't want to lose any money to wineries that want to bypass them."

The various laws that make shipping wine across state borders anything from a misdemeanor to a felony are "stupid," Thompson said. "For example, you can only bring the equivalent of four bottles of wine into Washington, D.C. If I bring in six bottles from Virginia, does that make me a felon?"

The bill's threat to Internet commerce was of particular concern to testifying vintners. "The 21st Amendment is a 70-year-old model that couldn't foresee societal and technological changes in the world today," said Tom Shelton, president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley and president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

Shelton also explained that the Napa Valley Vintners Association has proposed a voluntary set of guidelines for the wine industry to prevent accidental mail delivery of wines to minors, a concern voiced by supporters of the Scarborough bill. Yet Thompson called mail-order sales to minors a nonissue. "Abuse in California is not measurable," the congressman noted.

Ose, the only congressman present who supported the Scarborough bill, seemed to have a change of heart after the hearing. "It's given me a lot to think about," he said, adding that he had been unaware of several key initiatives, such as the wineries' guidelines to protect minors. "This thing is going to come back," he said. "I think you'll see the vintners make a better case to soften [the bill] so it will be more acceptable to all parties."

Reflecting on the bipartisan effort to scuttle the Scarborough bill, Pombo concluded, "We didn't effectively get the message out. If the House members really knew what they were voting for, it wouldn't have passed."

To learn more about Sen. Strom Thurmond's legislation:

  • August 5, 1999
    Thurmond Targets Wine Export Subsidies

    To learn more about the issue of direct shipping, read our most recent news report, House Overwhelmingly Passes Scarborough Bill and our feature package Wine Wars.

    To find out how your representative voted on HR2031, click here.

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