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Opinion: Keep Politics Out of My Wine



Illustration by Josh Flanigan

 

There aren’t any topics more destructive to lighthearted discussion or relaxing dinner table banter than politics or religion, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that wine is not free of such polarization. While the religion of wine can be interpreted as talk of organics, biodynamics, and natural wines, recent discussion has turned political thanks to a bill in the New York State Assembly requiring wine to be “At rest” within the state for one day before it‘s sold to retailers and restaurants.

 

Who in the wine industry would stand to benefit from said legislation? The two largest distributors in the state—Empire Merchants and Southern Wine & Spirits—which already own warehouses within New York’s borders. But the short end of the stick gets passed on to the state’s medium to small distributors who warehouse their wines in neighboring New Jersey, which are cheaper to maintain and close to a major port used for wine shipping. The argument, in its most simplified explanation, pits large distributors and the legislators they support (who believe that this bill would create high paying, union approved warehouse jobs while generating more taxes) against the smaller distributors who believe the law kills competition, and inhibits them from operatizing within their budgets while ultimately costing the state more jobs and ultimately passing that expense on to the consumer.

 

This story has received a good deal of attention in the press, as most proposed legislation affecting New York’s alcohol distribution policies (remember wine in grocery stores?) generally do. The NY Post went so far as to detail the legal campaign contributions of Empire Merchants to the bill’s author. Critics of the bill—including employees of smaller distributors, wine producers, and wine writers—have pointed the public to Stopthecorktax.com, a coalition of  “small wine and spirit distributors, distillers, wholesalers, vineyards and retailers from across the state” dedicated to defeating the “At rest” legislation while sharing their thoughts against.

 

As someone who works with wine producers and retailers, I’m familiar with the in and outs of the unnecessarily complex system that brings wine from a winery into a restaurant or wine shop in New York. The system is already packed full of antiquated laws, stifling taxes, and mountains of paperwork wrapped in red tape. I can’t imagine anyone intentionally making it more difficult or costly to operate a business focused on wine and liquor sales. Although my sympathy tends to side with the employees and wineries who work with smaller distributors, my main concern is how this legislation would affect me as a wine drinker.

 

I’d never try to convince someone that I’m a typical wine consumer. I’m overly obsessive and terribly fickle when it comes to how I spend my wine budget. I have absolutely zero brand loyalty. I get my kicks from trying as many different wines as I can find, from every grape-growing region, involving as many different producers possible. I rarely drink the same wine twice, unless the goal is showcasing wine and food pairings or sharing something I like with those that might appreciate geeky wine discussion. It’s that diversity in wine that I crave, and it’s diversity that I think this legislation will ultimately destroy. These small producers are taking chances by bringing young regions, start-up wineries, and unproven brands to a competitive market, and their success relies upon the consumer’s passion for experimentation, exploration, and the hunger for a global wine education.

 

The next time you open a bottle of wine at home or in a restaurant, take a look at the back label. If it mentions names like Verity, Bowler, Vineyard Brands, Martin Scott, Winebow, VOS, Montcalm, Vias, Polaner, M.S. Walker, Domain Select or Frederick Wildman, then chances are this wine would be much harder to find, or more expensive if the “At rest” bill were to pass. If wine diversity and choice is something you value, then check out Stopthecorktax.com and consider taking part in letting your local state legislator know you want to keep politics out of your wine.

 

 

Bryan Calandrelli is a winemaker living in Niagara County. He writes about wine for Buffalo Spree in our ongoing We’ll Drink to That column.

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