This week’s wine news: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy in the supermarket this fall, the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, and a new wine TV show.
• Maybe by Thanksgiving: Pennsylvanians may be able to buy wine in the grocery store by the holiday if all goes well, reports the Post-Gazette newspaper in Pittsburgh. The well-written piece explains the obstacles to be overcome and the bureaucratic tussle to be negotiated for grocery stores to sell wine for the first time in the state’s history: They need to get a retail license, renovate their aisles to make room for wine, and to work with distributors to make sure wine shows up at the store. For example, since no distributor in the state sells to grocery stores now, wholesalers will have to set up the process from scratch. Again, another example of how cumbersome and outdated the three-tier system is.
• Judgment of Paris: The Wine Curmudgeon mentions the 40th anniversary of the most important event in the U.S. wine business after Prohibition again for two reasons. First, this Jancis Robinson story focuses on Steven Spurrier, the Briton who put the Judgment together, something we don’t see much of in this country. Second, as you read this, I’m in Colorado with Warren Winiarksi, whose Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon was chosen best red wine in the blind tasting. Perhaps Warren and I can find time to record a podcast while we’re here if he doesn’t mind recounting yet again how the California wines bested the best wines in France.
• Making wine on TV work: The Wine Curmudgeon has often lamented that wine makes for lousy TV, because an interesting wine TV show could help boost wine’s popularity in the U.S. That may change in August, though, when Hulu airs the English “TV Wine Show” featuring two British actors who apparently make women swoon – Matthew Goode (hope he doesn’t read this) and Matthew Rhys. I have not seen the show, but will watch it and review it. Goode and Rhys are going to have to be very sexy to overcome the plot description, though, which sounds like another wine TV yawner: “[W]ine pros travel the world to experience international wine culture from experts.”
Three things are certain in Texas – the Cowboys, brutal summers, and the god-like power of the Texas Package Stores Association, the trade group that represents the state’s liquor store owners. The package store lobby is why liquor stores are closed on Sunday, why we have unbelievably restrictive laws on liquor store ownership, and why we have a fourth tier in the three-tier system.
All that may be about to change.
Later this year, a federal judge could overturn the ownership laws, and once that happens, many of the other restrictions could end, too. We might be able to buy wine in the grocery store before noon on Sunday or even – God forbid – spirits. And yes, that would be like a 72-degree day here in August, and where it gets chilly enough at night to need a jacket.
I never thought this would happen, but after talking to a variety of people who follow Texas liquor law, it looks like the unthinkable will take place. The package store owners, who have pretty much vetted the state’s liquor laws since the early 1970s, will have to compromise or lose all of the advantages they’ve written for themselves.
More, after the jump: Continue reading
This week’s wine news features our old pal the three-tier system, but it’s mostly good news – including some of the biggest changes in state liquor laws since Prohibition.
• Well done, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania wine drinkers, who have suffered for years at the hands of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and its infamous state stores, will soon be able to buy wine at a retailer not owned by the state. Somehow, despite years of political impasse, the legislature passed a bill that the governor signed that will allow hundreds of restaurants, hotels, and grocery and convenience stores that sell take-out beer to sell bottles of wine. As the story notes, passage was almost anti-climactic given how bitter the debate has been for years.
• Wine in N.Y. supermarkets? Perhaps, reports the MPNNow website in the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes wine country. New York remains the biggest market where grocery stores can’t sell wine in the U.S., and attempts to allow it have failed for decades. The impetus this time? Pennsylvania’s new law that allows grocers to sell wine, and which not only may send New York residents across the border to buy wine, but reduce the number of Pennsylvanians going to New York to shop in its liquor stores and visit its wineries. The story is well written, and hints at the contentious debate that will ensue if the issue makes it to the state legislature.
• Colorado signs up, too: Expect to see wine in Colorado supermarkets, as well, after legislators agreed to a law that allows grocers, Walmart, and Target to compete directly with liquor stores and allows each to expand sales to 20 locations in phases over 20 years. Current law limits each chain to sales at one location in the state. The bill, a compromise, faces a court fight from those who want to eliminate all restrictions and allow groceries to sell wine, beer, and spirits in all locations immediately.
? Ontario does its duty: The Canadian province has made major changes in the way it sells beer, wine, and spirits, something that seemed hard to believe in a province with the Canadian equivalent of state stores. Nevertheless, liquor reform has come, and it will soon be possible to buy beer in a grocery store, buy wine online, and sleect from more interesting win in the province. And pricing will become more consumer friendly, with provincial officials vowing to negotiate better deals with producers. “The days of monopoly are done,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne. Which raises the question: If Ontario can do this, and it has been called one of the last bastions of Prohibition, why do we have such trouble reforming liquor laws in the U.S.?
? Even in Texas: Sort of, anyway. The Texas Legislature is discussing whether to allow Walmart, Costco, Kroger and other publicly-held companies to open liquor stores in the state. Currently, only privately-held companies can get a license to do that, and there is even a provision in the law that forbids people who aren’t related from owning more than five stores. The Lege, as the late Molly Ivins so fondly called it, probably won’t change the law this session, but there is momentum to allow grocery stores to own liquor stores and it could happen sooner rather than later. Why they need to own liquor stores, rather than selling liquor in their existing stores, is a story for another time.
? But probably not in Pennsylvania: The blog has covered liquor reform in Pennsylvania almost since its inception, and nothing ever seems to happen. That has not stopped liquor stores in Delaware, which borders Pennsylvania, from holding panicked meetings to demand reform in Delaware in case Pennsylvania actually changes its state store system. The Wine Curmudgeon has some advice for Delaware: “Chill, dude.” The day Pennsylvania gets rid of state stores is the the day I write an homage to 15 percent chardonnay.
Someone has to keep an eye on this government regulation foolishness, because it really is getting out of hand — something to remember on election day.:
? When is whiskey not really whiskey? When you’re in Tennessee, where the state legislature apparently has better things to do than worry about education, taxes, highways, and the rest of government. Instead, it will debate the definition of Tennessee whiskey, Diageo, which owns George Dickel, and Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniels, are two of the biggest booze companies in the world. They’ve talked the legislature (no doubt using campaign cash) into setting limits on what Tennessee whiskey can be, and the current definition favors Brown-Forman. Not surprisingly, Diageo is aghast, and wants changes. It’s enough to make the Wine Curmudgeon boycott both brands, and I like Tennessee whiskey. I wonder: Will anyone in the legislature have the courage to stand up and tell both companies to go away and let the lawmakers worry about important stuff?
? Yes, we sell sell beer (but not really): U.S. politicians and bureaucrats aren’t the only ones who are obsessed with this stuff; even the normally mild-mannered Canadians lose control. How else to explain this, from an advisory committee in the province of Ontario which says the province should not privatize its government-owned liquor stores — just change the way it sells beer. Consumers will be allowed to buy 12-packs in addition to six-packs. Be still, my beating heart. And, believe it or not, the same committee is debating electricity deregulation in the same mandate from the provincial government. How anyone thinks booze and power are alike in any way, and that the same decisions apply, is mind boggling. Unless, of course, you don’t want to deregulate liquor sales to begin with.
? Ensuring a fair marketplace or hurting consumers? The New York State Liquor Authority has imposed more than $3 million in fines on distributors and retailers in the past three years in an attempt to eliminate sweetheart deals that allow some stores to get better treatment than others. This isn’t unusual in other businesses, where the best customers get the best deals, but it’s not supposed to happen in three-tier, which governs alcohol sales in the U.S. Three-tier says everyone has the same opportunity to buy the same products, regardless of size. Many retailers and distributors are furious about the fines and new rules, which strikes me as ironic — three-tier is protecting them from even more intense competition.
How does anyone make sense of these three-tier decisions without a crate of aspirin?
The Wine Curmudgeon always underestimates the silliness of the three-tier system — which governs alcohol sales in the U.S. — even though I have been writing about it for 20 years:
? Only in Texas: What happens if you open a chain of liquor stores in the Lone Star State and run it successfully? You get sued — by other retailers who claim you’re violating state law. Like most three-tier stories, it’s terribly confusing, but the gist is this: Texas law says only state residents (for at least a year) can get a retail license to sell booze, but the law hasn’t been enforced in more than two decades. Total Wine, a Maryland chain that has opened six stores in the state, is being sued by the trade group that represents Texas liquor stores because Total isn’t a state resident. The trade group says that a recent Missouri case validated the residency requirement that Texas hasn’t enforced, and wants Total’s license revoked. Yes, I know, it makes my head hurt, too.
? Cold beer? How dare you? A federal judge had told Indiana convenience stores and supermarkets that they can sell warm beer and cold wine, but not cold beer, reports Supermarket News — even though liquor stores can sell cold beer. His logic? That the state would have a more difficult time preventing beer sales to minors if c-stores and supermarkets sold cold beer. Apparently, minors don’t try to buy cold wine or warm beer at gas stations by asking their friend who works there to ring it up as motor oil. Still, before we start making too much fun of the judge, know this: His logic makes perfect sense given the legal underpinnings of the three-tier system, which allows each state to regulate liquor sales as it sees fit. If Indiana law says everything possible must be done to prevent underage drinking, and the state insists that grocery store cold beer sales will make this difficult, then the judge didn’t have much choice.
? Beer at Oktoberfest? Not in Utah: The Wine Curmudgeon has a soft spot in his heart for Utah’s liquor laws, because they have managed to retain their 19th-century Victorian charm in the 21st century. The latest? That the state’s liquor cops require an event be for “the common good” before they will grant a permit to sell alcohol for something like a festival or concert. And, since the Snowbird Ski Resort near Salt Lake City couldn’t demonstrate that its annual Oktoberfest was for the common good, it didn’t get a license to sell beer or wine. That the idea of “common good” — whatever that is — is not part of state law, but from rules written by the liquor cops, only makes this decision that much more charming.
“Wonder what Palcohol will do to this crappy wine?”
? When real booze isn’t enough: Not happy with liquid alcohol? Then how about the powdered version, Palcohol, which has been approved for consumer use. It comes in seven flavors, including ?cosmopolitan, ? ?lemondrop, ? and ?powderita. ? Yum yum. No word yet on whether the company will release a pink moscato flavor, with appropriate Millennial marketing: “Dude, your wine is super lame — try this.” The Wine Curmudgeon’s cynicism notwithstanding, I checked with the blog’s offical liquor lawyer, who sighed (he does that a lot when I talk to him). His analysis: “I’ll bet it lasts about 10 minutes. A few years ago all the regulators got panicky over vaporized alcohol. Supposedly made you drunk in .05 seconds and they couldn’t figure out how to make it illegal. Turns out it didn’t work and nobody gave a damn. Maybe this will be the same way, but stand by for screams of alarm.”
? When regular closing time isn’t enough: How does 5:30 in the morning sound? That’s the plan for bars in several Montreal neighborhoods this summer, part of a scheme to ease congestion in those area when the bars close. The Wine Curmudgeon, despite more than a passing knowledge of drinking in Montreal (and where I have had some great Canadian wine), is still confused. Can there be a city where so many people are drinking so late into the night that last call resembles a shopping mall parking lot on Black Friday? If so, I need to get out more often. Or at least drink somewhere besides Dallas.
? If not the best quote ever, close to it: Hardy Wallace gained fame — and quite a bit of notoriety — when he won a gig several years ago as the official blogger for the Murphy-Goode wine brand. Wallace makes wine now, and notoriety still follows him. Consider this, from an interview with a San Francisco-area business newspaper: “It ?s overwhelming generality that vintners are doing a horrible job communicating with consumers. … You do not stand in a room and scream, ‘Buy this!’ and, ‘We sell this!’ ” Sounds like the Wine Curmudgeon on a rant, no?