Tom Shelton’s got a story for us, a fictional story but a plausible one, a story based on reality. It starts with a couple, both in their mid-’30s, traveling through Napa Valley. They are, of course, touring the vineyards, and after sampling some chardonnay at one stop they decide, just as the vintner hoped, to buy a case of the wine. After paying for the case and arranging to have it shipped to their home in, say, Bethesda, they leave. A week or so later, the vintner receives a letter in the mail. It tells him that it’s a felony to ship wine into the state of Maryland—which, in turn, makes him a felon. In due time, the vintner’s license is revoked; he’s out of business.
By this point in the story, Shelton, who’s speaking to a group of journalists at the National Press Club, has grown grave. “This doesn’t sound like the United States,” he announces from the podium. “It sounds like the Banana Republic.”
Limited access to choice wines isn’t exactly a serious human rights issue, but Shelton has plenty good reason to be up in arms. The Silver Spring native is president and CEO of Joseph Phelps Vineyards as well as outgoing president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. At the time of the press conference, last fall, Maryland had just passed a law that made it the eighth state to make shipping alcohol across its borders a felony; similar statutes exist in the District and Virginia, although in neither is the crime a felony. In total, there are only 17 states in which it’s entirely legal to get wine or other alcohol by mail. Such restrictions are particularly troublesome to businesspeople like Shelton because they greatly hamper their ability to sell to out-of-state customers over the Internet, and, as he puts it, “We just want to take part in the new economy.”
So who cares? A little history: After the repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, the government set up a highly regulated three-tier system of alcohol distribution consisting of producer, distributor, and retailer. The system and the laws supporting it were designed primarily to keep mobsters and bootleggers out of the booze business. Hooch-peddling Mafiosi have largely gone the way of the Edsel, yet many of the laws from the era still remain. As do the alcohol distributors, most of which have evolved into behemoths. Of the 10,000 distributors that existed in the mid-’60s, roughly 300 remain, and the people who run them, still mindful of a time when their product was contraband, know how to watch out for their own interests: Last October, the Wall Street Journal laid out how the nation’s largest liquor distributor basically engineered a favorable felony law in Florida. The distributor folks like restrictive shipping laws for the same reason that Shelton doesn’t—the laws keep people like Shelton off their turf.
David Dickerson, a spokesman for the locally based Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, insists that in supporting shipping laws, distributors are primarily concerned with keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors. The problem here is that the laws really affect only winemakers and their customers. Many good wines are made in small batches, and not all of them are made available to distributors. Establishing a line of e-commerce between a wine drinker in Gaithersburg and a wine producer in Napa Valley makes sense; establishing something similar between a Bud drinker in Silver Spring and Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis simply doesn’t. All of which is to say that erecting a felony law to prevent a 16-year-old from going through the trouble of obtaining a case of ’95 zinfandel online seems a little severe.
“We can ship organ transplants,” Shelton quips. “We can ship pharmaceuticals across the United States overnight. To tell me that we can’t solve the problem of legally shipping high-end wines—or even beer, for that matter—it just doesn’t make sense.” Later, he adds that technology exists to allow for online age verification.
Here’s another thing that doesn’t make sense: It’s illegal to ship alcohol into Virginia, yet it’s fine to order a case from a Virginia vineyard and have it delivered to your door in the same state—rendering the protection-of-minors argument moot. A distributor spokesperson might explain that the purpose of such a law is to make sure that state tax laws are obeyed. As if transferring the paperwork burden from the distributor to the winemaker were simply impossible.
Perhaps what’s most disturbing about this entire imbroglio is how stupid laws beget the kind of enforcement they deserve. When I speak with Dr. Charles Ehart, director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Comptroller of Maryland’s Office, about the particulars of shipping laws, he mentions, “My people just did a sting last week. We brought the case of product into the office this morning.” The case in question contains wine that was shipped illegally into Maryland. But a “sting”?
Laws, whether they’re formed to protect the special interests of deep-pocketed liquor distributors or actual people, tend to demonize whatever they render illegal. Take the case of Virginia resident Mark Phillips: He runs a local group called the Wine Tasting Association. Last August, he mentioned on the Association’s e-mail bulletin board that he had a particular ’91 bordeaux in his personal collection that he wished to unload. The message prompted a call from a woman who said she was interested, and she came over to his house and bought a bottle for $110. An hour after the transaction, as Phillips tells it, “six squad cars pull up, armed agents get out of the cars with guns drawn, and they surround the house.” As it turns out, Phillips was also the victim of a sting, if not of shipping laws: He was arrested for selling wine without a license, a charge that was eventually dropped because, among other things, the rubber-gloved agents who searched his house and threatened to confiscate his computers neglected to read Phillips his rights.
The fact that wine collectors commonly ignore arcane laws to trade and sell among themselves doesn’t make Phillips innocent. But it seems worth asking: Is the problem of criminal bordeaux trafficking so severe that it warrants conducting publicly funded ambushes in the Virginia suburbs?
Wine is the most benign of our controlled substances. That’s a big part of its appeal. Unlike beer, wine’s not belch-inducing, and it doesn’t rip through your stomach like liquor. To drink it is to understand how it complies with the chemistry of the human body and complements the food that you send through it. Aesthetes have been known to rhapsodize about past loves at the mere mention of a vintage burgundy. What’s more, wine consumption is plain old good for you (here’s to our hearts!), and in many European homes, not to mention Europhile American ones, it’s not uncommon for grade-school children to drink a glass with dinner. Neither expert nor neophyte, I just like how the stuff suffuses me with sensation, from the tongue to the stomach to, eventually, the brain, where it lubricates conversation without causing things to go too far off topic. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the days when wine was, like, a legal substance.
Pseudo-Prohibitionists may want to take note: Plato’s Palate, a minuscule Greek joint in Bethesda, serves a potentially illicit sandwich. Somewhat brazenly, even. The sign outside screams, “HOME OF THE OUZO BURGER,” and the guy behind the counter insists that it’s like no hamburger I’ve ever had. He’s right on that: The liquor in question imparts a faint tang to the meat, and the feta spread gives the whole thing a nice, stinky finish. When I ask the counter guy exactly how the Ouzo is used—are we talking about a marinade here?—he recoils a bit, offering, “We have our way.” Did I mention that he doesn’t even card me?
Plato’s Palate, 9639 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, (301) 907-2969. —Brett Anderson
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