Uncorked: Scrooged for Christmas?

By Michael Brenton

Proposed bill a raw deal for wine consumers

Intending to send a holiday basket of Michigan wine and other goodies to a special client or relative?  Planning to have wine delivered to your wedding reception, graduation open house or office party? Thinking of sending a mixed case of great Michigan wine to your pal in New York, rather than being forced to do business out of state?

If so, you may want to do it soon, because making such conduct illegal is on the short list of high priorities for your legislative representatives in Lansing during the lame duck December session, with a vote in the House possible as early as this week. So where's this craziness that would hurt our state's economy coming from? Hint: It has nothing to do with the interests of Michigan retailers and consumers (also known as constituents).

When a powerful special-interest group and its members contribute seven-figure sums to legislators’ campaign coffers, there’s a good chance it’s after some payback, not a pat on the back.

So when the State House introduces legislation promoted by that group, and the next day slicks it through a committee whose members have benefitted substantially from that largesse without likely opponents' receiving reasonable notice or a legitimate opportunity to testify in opposition, it’s a good bet that constituent rights are under attack and our representatives hope we won’t notice.

So it is with House Bill 6644, which revokes Michigan retailers’ long-held right to deliver wine to consumers, and consumers’ long-held right to order wine for delivery or shipment by Michigan retailers, under the subterfuge of promoting “the public health, safety and welfare.”

Why, you might ask, is the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association willing to throw its own in-state retail customers under the bus by eliminating a source of sales, especially in today’s economic environment?

The answer: a recent federal court decision threw out Michigan’s prohibition against out-of-state retailers shipping to Michigan residents as long as Michigan retailers have that right. If that decision is upheld (it is being appealed), the legislature must either fashion legislation that allows wine sales from both in-state and out–of-state sources (not reinventing the wheel, by the way), or it can be a figurative pawn of the Wholesalers Association and make sure you can’t receive wine from, or deliver wine to, anybody. Period.

HB 6644 ensures the latter course, regardless of the consequences to Michigan business and consumers. Purchasing a single bottle of wine at retail without legislatively guaranteeing distributors a percentage of the profit from every drop is anathema to the association, even it has to hurt its own state to do it.

To contort a time worn phrase, some of my best friends are wine distributors. Truly. But should the legislature dictate that our choices must be determined by third parties simply because their pockets are the deepest in the state? This is the 21st century, not post Prohibition. The MBWWA is fond of lauding the state’s power to regulate alcohol sales pursuant to the 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, using that as a springboard to conclude that no Michigan citizen should be able to buy wine at retail that does not pass through a distributor’s hands.

But we no longer live in an era of rampant moonshine and rum running. Another historical document recognizes that we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Call and e-mail your representatives and Senators to remind them.

For more information, check out http://michwine.com/ and www.capwiz.com/freegrapes/issues/, where you will also find convenient links for sending e-mail direct to your legislators. But don’t delay. Despite the multitude of challenges confronting our state and our economy, this bill could be on the fast track for passage. Wait two weeks, and it may be too late.

In Vino Veritas.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)