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02.28.2008

My Life as Lawbreaker, Caught in the Crosshairs

You all remember WineGate, right? The brouhaha of eight weeks ago surrounding Wine.Com's actions against its competitors and consumers in general? Well just when it was starting to fade into memory, the infamous Mr. Wolf, recently immortalized in the New York Times as the upright spokesman for the WSWA (Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America -- the bad guys), released a press release and sent a letter to state governments all across America. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this letter was released on the same day that the Specialty Wine Retailers Association -- the good guys -- were having their annual meeting.

You'll have to trust me when I say that Vinography is not going to start becoming the clearing house for interstate shipping law controversy, but this letter is too good to pass up. I offer it here in its entirety.

Remember, this was a letter sent by the largest lobbying body for distributors and wholesalers in America, to the government agencies in every single state that are responsible for regulating alcohol shipping and taxes.

I write to call your attention to a serious and ongoing breach of state alcohol control laws. While the breach is alarming enough, almost as troubling is the brazen disregard the perpetrators continue to show for the rule of law and those appointed to enforce it.


I refer to the illegal transportation of alcohol via common carrier across state lines and into your jurisdiction. These shipments fall outside of the controlled distribution system mandated by state law. As you are well aware, the sidestepping of state-controlled alcohol distribution channels causes a host of negative effects—the inability to collect taxes, the absence of a face-to-face transaction that addresses myriad regulatory aims, and the very real possibility of introducing tainted or counterfeit product into your marketplace, to name but a few.

Beverage alcohol is a special consumer commodity whose market is well-served by commonsense government controls. The wholesaler-distributor members of my association have always expressed strong support for the right of the states to control liquor distribution according to the authority clearly granted by the 21st Amendment and affirmed most recently by the Supreme Court in its Granholm v. Heald decision.

That belief in the authority and integrity of the state-based regulatory system is shared by most licensed suppliers, distributors, retailers and consumers of alcohol. However, a growing number of interstate purveyors of beverage alcohol are flaunting their disdain for laws designed to prevent underage access and ensure accountability. They appear both utterly remorseless and resolute in their intention to keep breaking those laws, with little fear of retribution.

Executives at multi-state retailer Wine.com recently contacted regulators in eleven states with evidence that many fellow retailers have been operating in blatant noncompliance with state regulations by shipping illegally to consumers in those states. I present for your consideration the response by some of those caught in the crosshairs, which is both astounding and revealing.

Alder Yarrow, who runs the very popular Vinography wine blog—perhaps not realizing that others outside the wine world might see his comments—revealed a fact which has been repeatedly denied by wineries and retailers engaging in direct shipments of alcohol: "The wine industry has a bit of a dirty little secret—people break the rules all the time. Wineries and retailers (especially retailers) and the consumers that buy from them have all sorts of ways of getting around the shipping regulations. From shipping wines labeled as 'samples' to using third party shipping companies, to simply 'forgetting' to label their boxes with the required 'Contains Alcoholic Beverages' stickers, among other things."

Yarrow later complained on his blog to Wine.com President Richard Bergsund that "you're trying to get people busted for something that EVERYONE [sic] does, simply because you comply with the law."

Peter Granoff, a California retailer and interstate shipper of beverage alcohol, confirmed on the Decanter.com blog that these illegal practices are rife within the industry: "That horse is NEVER [sic] going back in the corral, and any regulator at state or federal level who imagines otherwise is a fool. Consumers will continue to find ways to get wine shipped to them and there will always be businesses that will accommodate them."

Instead of showing concern that members of his association might be violating the laws in a number of states, Tom Wark of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association condemned Wine.com for revealing the illegal sales of a number of his members in comments to the universally read Wine Market Report. He later wrote on the Vinography wine blog that "there is a very long tradition of folks protesting" laws they disagree with by "breaking them," and that reporting those violations was fruitless in any event since, he asserted, states had no power to prosecute those sellers who violate the law.

Ironically, Mr. Wark made these comments at the very same time he has been going from statehouse to statehouse trying to convince lawmakers that his "law-abiding" member retailers should be entrusted to ship alcohol across state lines.

This disdain for state alcohol control laws goes beyond the blogosphere and is now entrenching itself in the mainstream press. The lead wine writer for the New York Times, in reporting on the Wine.com story, authored the following admission on January 30: "I have a confession to make. I am a lawbreaker. It happened only once. Well, maybe a few times, since I'm being honest. Naturally, it involved wine that I really wanted but that I could not obtain either from a retail shop in New York City or directly from a winery. But I found these bottles online at a retail shop in California. I ordered the wine and it was shipped to me. That's illegal. At least it is in New York State."

That a newspaper of record would publish such comments in the full light of day, we believe, ought to trouble any regulator, lawmaker or law enforcement official. Of equal concern is that such illegal acts are occurring daily without an appropriate response. Lack of enforcement has clearly allowed this culture of lawlessness to flourish, and it is only through renewed enforcement that respect for those laws will be regained.

I have little doubt that as a respected enforcement agent of your state's codes and statutes, you will bring your full attention to this rampant problem and help restore the rule of law to a highly sensitive area of commerce. If you have any further questions concerning any of the matters I have raised, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.

Well, my fellow lawbreakers, did you know that we were caught in the crosshairs? I've had this sort of scratchy feeling on my back for the last few weeks. I'm thinking now that it might be some sort of sixth sense that at any moment, the FBI is going to bust down my front door and arrest me for...... what exactly, Mr. Wolf?

Of course, I have the luck to live in California, a state that pretty much makes it easy for me to order wine directly from wineries and retailers all across America. To my great chagrin, I've never actually broken any of those idiotic, protectionist laws that pretty much every wine consumer, winery, and wine retailer wishes would just go away.

I've now read this letter over five or six times and every time it makes me laugh. It has exactly the same tattletale tone that Wine.Com used when it tried to bust its competitors after illegally ordering wine from them. I laugh hardest at the astonishment that Mr. Wolf seems to express at my revelation of the wine industry's "dirty little secret." I guess I really did let the cat out of the bag, huh? All this time the WSWA thought this interstate shipping thing was only happening occasionally. Good thing I brought it up, otherwise they and the state regulators (who the WSWA thinks are so clueless that they need these things pointed out to them) would have just gone about their daily lives as if no one ever successfully ordered wine from out of state retailers, even though they weren't supposed to.

But that's OK, because I've got some good company as wine industry jailbait, including Eric "The Perpetrator" Asimov of the New York Times, whom the WSWA mistakenly thinks is sympathetic to their cause (but who is reviled as a lawbreaker nonetheless).

And of course, dear reader, I've got you: My fellow citizens who know bullshit when they smell it, who know that there are state laws that are important (you can't kill your neighbors pets) and that there are those that just need to be ignored:

Idaho: cohabitation between an unmarried couple is illegal
Georgia: oral sex is illegal (even between married couples)
Florida: men may never wear strapless gowns
Arkansas: school teachers with bobbed haircuts cannot get raises
Ohio: women cannot wear patent leather shoes in public

And we could go on and on.... I don't know about you, but I think pretty much everything I like to do (including wearing a strapless gown every once in a while) is probably illegal in some state. So for now, I'll just have to keep breaking the law, and I hope you wine lovers will do so too. But be careful, you're caught in the crosshairs now, too.

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