The Wine Curmudgeon long ago made his peace with three-tier, the system of state laws that governs alcohol distribution in the United States. It's outdated and a relic of Prohibition, and makes as much sense in the post-modern world as connecting to the Internet with typewriter and carbon paper. But it's the law, as the Supreme Court always reminds us, and we must learn to live with it.
And I have tried to do so. But in Alabama, the state's wineries -- all 13 of them -- are being pounded by a couple of multi-million dollar beer distributors. Alabama's wineries want an exemption from the state's three-tier system so they can sell their wine directly to restaurants and retailers, called self-distribution. Currently, if they don't have a distributor, and none of them do (or likely ever will), it's illegal for them to sell to restaurants and retailers.
The beer distributors have blocked legislation that would allow self-distribution, which is common elsewhere (including Texas, where we are hardly known for our progressive liquor laws). Citing the sancity of three-tier, beer lobbyist and former state senator and lieutenant governor Steve Windom told the Tuscaloosa News: Thousands of jobs would be jeopardized by a change in three-tier, and "[t]he concern is we don’t pass legislation that impacts the three-tier system."
Which is about as silly as trying to connect to the Internet with typewriter and carbon paper. Those 13 wineries make less than 13,000 cases of wine a year, and much of their wine is made with muscadines, which isn't even technically a grape. In terms of commerical potential, Gallo or Kendall Jackson they ain't. More, after the jump.
• The beer distributors, led by Gulf, have never shown how much business they would lose from allowing wineries to sell directly to retailers and restaurants, says Patrick, and they're probably more concerned with setting a precedent that would encourage Alabama's craft breweries to ask for a similar exemption. Though, given that the state apparently has only 10 craft brewers, that doesn't seem like much of a reason, either.
• Alabama's wineries could self-distribute from 1979 until 2001, when the Legislature took the privilege away; Patrick says they did so at the behest of the distributors.
• The wineries are willing to fight to get self-distribution. Patrick says they will use their customer mailing lists to target legislators who vote against the exemption, and he says that could affect quite a few districts. "If someone who voted against us took money from the beer distributors [in campaign contributions], the people in the church where they are a deacon should know that they took that money," he says. "We're not going away politely."
Patrick says he is optimistic the wineries will get the change they are asking for. If so, I'm willing to bet it won't be the end of the three-tier system. We should be so lucky.
Photo courtesy J.W, Brewing Co., using a Creative Commons license