H.R. 5034, the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010, is simmering in the House of Representatives and waiting to make its way out the House to a Senate vote. So, I contacted my State Senator, Scott P. Brown, with an appeal to consider the scary aspects of this legislation which would allow Massachusetts, and all other states, the power to prevent direct shipments to resident consumers from outside the State.
If passed, it would allow states to completely restrict their residents’ wine purchases to in-state wineries and those wines that state wholesalers, often with monopolistic immunity, choose to bring into the state. H.R. 5034 was introduced, with significant wholesaler lobby support, to undo the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Granholm v. Heald, which basically amended a few statutes in order to prevent the states’ abilities to legislate around or discriminate between in-state and out-of-state alcohol and, ultimately, to comply with a fair commerce clause in the 21st constitutional amendment.
Should H.R. 5034 make it through the House and Senate, it would be destructive to small production wineries that are unable to successfully work through wholesalers and currently rely on the direct to consumer channel, and it would eliminate consumers’ ability to purchase many of the wines they want. Passing this legislation would drop the iron curtain on buying and selling wine. So, I was really interested to hear what my Senator thought about all this. Here is the one of two pieces of meat to the letter I received back last week:
“…The legislation aims to recognize that the public health concerns associated with alcohol are different than with other consumer products. H.R. 5034 also would protect the authority of states to regulate alcoholic beverages….no similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.”
Wait, public health concerns? What is healthier about wine made in the state compared to wine made outside the state? What is healthier or safer about wines that are chosen by wholesalers compared to wines chosen by serious wine enthusiasts? Is it easier for minors to contact a winery outside of their state, supply a credit card, and wait for a discrete shipment of wine to arrive in the home they live in with their parents than to get their hands on a legally aged friend or fake ID to snag a bottle at a local liquor store? I have been a disapproving witness to under aged drinking, and these kids never resort to shipping alcohol from out-of-state sources so they could get drunk on a Friday night with their friends. If the states were already doing a good job keeping young kids away from alcohol, then maybe I could see the point of accepting commercially discriminatory legislation to protect our kids in the balance. And if the unspoken, ulterior motive in Senator Brown’s letter is to protect State sales tax income, then why not just tax incoming direct to consumer shipments? Why…because this whole affair is designed by the strong local and national Wholesaler lobby to restrict competition that might cost them revenue or force them to work harder and open up deeper supply lines. The letter goes on with its second piece of meat:
“I understand your concerns about the potential harm this legislation may cause to local wineries especially concerns over prohibitions on direct consumer shipping of alcohol. I believe it is important that we empower small businesses such as local wineries and provide them with the tools necessary so they can successfully compete in the marketplace.”
Well yes, I am concerned with local wineries, but I am most generally concerned for consumer rights and all small production wineries in all states. As a matter of fact, last week I had dinner with the owner and operator of a local Massachusetts winery (yes, there are some) and he bemoaned that passage of the bill could easily destroy his ability to grow his winery to a level that could sustain itself and his love for making wine over the long haul. Not being able to sell wine (no wholesaler will inventory small production wine like his and leave enough margin for the winery to succeed) direct to consumer or restaurants outside of Massachusetts would put him out of business. So exactly what kind of “tools” can be provided to small wineries besides protecting their freedom to sell wine to consumers that want to buy it, no matter where they live? Furthermore, my letter to Senator Brown was inspired by a motivation to keep the hope alive that one day I might be allowed to legally ship many otherwise locally unavailable and excellent small production wines to my home, in my own state, just like so many other wine lovers can do in their own states now, but might no longer be able to should H.R. 5034 make it into and out of the Senate.
My Senator said, in closing, that he will keep my thoughts in mind should H.R. 5034 or similar legislation come before the full Senate for debate. That scares me. I am not sure Senator Brown has really thought this through yet, and I can only hope that he and his aides invest more time understanding the genesis of this bill and its lethal repercussions that would devastate so many businesses. The voice of local consumers needs to get louder than it has been. You can help by visiting and supporting Free The Grapes and personalize a letter to your state representative while you are there.