Why We Love to Hate the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

In the wake of a recent post on the absurdity of wine shipping regulation in Texas, a cordial, however tense, dialogue (online and a voce) ensued between me and my friend and colleague Alfonso Cevola, a 30-year veteran of the Texas wine industry, a high-level manager for one of the state’s leading wine and spirits distributors, and a top wine blogger in the U.S.

As we debated the value and implications of the ban on out-of-state retailers in our state, I expressed my visceral observation that the fact that I cannot buy wine and have it shipped from a wine store in New York City just feels “un-American.”

Alfonso responded by pointing out that, “in fact, it is very American.” He was right.

To understand our state’s (and nation’s) peculiar relationship with alcohol, we need to look back to the early post-Prohibition era, when the Twenty-First amendment made alcohol legal again in our country (national Repeal was passed in 1933; Repeal in Texas was not passed until 1935).

“The Twenty-first Amendment is a deeply contradictory instrument,” writes Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America: from Prohibition to the Present (vol. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005). “In its first part it enables the return of alcoholic drink, while in its second part it allows for the growth of an unprecedented tangle of restrictive and obstructive regulation. As one winemaker has put it, ‘Prohibition was never repealed, it was just amended.'”

Click here to read the rest of my post today over at the Houston Press.

Best value Chianti (but sorry, fellow Texans, not available here)

Above: My good friend Francesco treated me to a bottle of 1995 Chianti Classico by Castell’in Villa at the Enoteca I Terzi in Siena when I visited in October.

Castell’in Villa is one of my favorite producers of Chianti Classico. It’s actually one of my all-time favorite Italian producers: traditional-style, pure Sangiovese, grown in galestro-rich stony soils at excellent elevation and with superb exposure, and raised in large cask. The wines are remarkably affordable (I recently bought some of their entry-tier 2007 for under $25) and the winery continues to draw from what must be an astonishing cellar, offering importers library releases that stretch back to the 1970s (I’ve tasted back to 1979).

The only problem is that you can’t get the wines in Texas.

Above: We paired the 95 with housemade tagliatelle tossed with funghi porcini that night in Siena.

Well, actually, there’s another problem: the wine is readily available in the U.S. but Texas won’t allow out-of-state retailers to ship the wine here. It’s against the law. Unless, of course, you set up shop as a winery in Texas — even if you don’t make wine. Yes, a winery that doesn’t make wine…

I’ve already pissed off a lot of folks today with my post over at the Houston Press, “Absurdity of Texas Wine Shipping Law Reaches New Heights”, about Friday’s news that the Texas alcohol authority has granted a winery license to Wine.Com, eve though — in the TABC’s own words — Wine.com doesn’t produce wine. With the license, Wine.com will now be able to ship wine to retail customers within Texas.

I knew this issue would press some of Tom Wark’s buttons: he’s spent the last few years campaigning against the anachronistic, obsolete, gerrymandering laws that regulate retail shipping of wine in our country. I sent the link to Tom this afternoon and he responded immediately:

    But here’s what needs to be understood. Wine.com is actually only able to sell and ship wines to Texans that it first purchased form a Texas wholesaler. That means that the Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico you mentioned can not be sold by Wine.com and shipped to a Texas consumer unless wine.com buys that wine from a Texas wholesaler.

    What’s really interesting is that Wine.com set up a physical presence in Texas and got the wine producers license in stead of a retailers license. You know why? Because a few years ago, when SWRA was suing texas for discriminating against out of state retailers, the TX legislature passed a law that limited Texas retailers to only shipping wine into the county where the physical retail outlet was located. However, a Texas “WINERY” can ship ship throughout Texas.

Above: A San Francisco-based retailer shipped me the wine regardless of the TABC restriction. It’s a great value and one of my favorite wines.

For the record, I side with many of my colleagues in the trade when it comes to the three-tier system in the U.S. I believe, like them, that the three-tier system helps to keep costs down and it protects the consumer by making it difficult for importers and distributor to monopolize brands.

But what the hell, yo????!!!! Ain’t America a free country? As a U.S. citizen, shouldn’t I have the right to purchase a bottle of wine from a retailer in San Francisco or New York and have them ship it to me?

Most retailers ignore the TABC restrictions anyway. And I have a secret for you: the rich folks in Texas? They spend so much money at the high-end retailers in New York and Northern California that the sellers will always find a way to get them their high-cost wine.

Me? I just want my under $25 bottle of Chianti Classico by Castell’in Villa! And by golly, it went great with a bottle of ranch dressing from Walmart! So there!

Here’s the link to my post over at the Houston Press.

Out-of-state shipping restrictions in the U.S.: Texas, a case study

I’m not sure where she got her information but my blogging colleague Lindsay Ronga (scroll down) published a pungent post over at the latest Gary V foray into the world of eno-social media, cork’d. In it she wrote:

“Just this week, wine retailers around the country received cease and desist letters from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) saying they can no longer ship wine to Texas consumers. The letter specifically told FedEx not to accept any wine retail packages to Texas. Wineries can still ship direct-to-consumer in the state of Texas.”

Good for Texas wine retailers? You bet. Good for wineries? Yes sir. Good for competition? Not a chance. Definitely not good for the Texas consumer. What government decided has put Texas wine retailers ahead of the online competition who most likely offers wine at lower prices.

Her information seemed a little skewed and so I got on the phone with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission this morning to set the record straight (everyone I talked to there was extremely nice, btw, and responded to me very promptly).

Basically, here’s what I found out.

Back in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. wineries could ship directly to consumers. Here’s the reference in the Wiki. The idea was that the Congress has the right to regulate commerce between states, trumping the states’s regulation, and that states must allow other states to ship their products to them (this is one of those over-arching concepts at the heart of our country’s creation, evolution, and spirit: free commerce among states).

Back in 2006, a Florida retailer filed a complaint against the governor of Texas, arguing that if wineries had the right to ship their products to Texas, so did retailers.

In 2008, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the plaintiff but after a series of appeals and a decision issued in February 2010, it was decided that out-of-state retailers could ship to Texas if they applied for and obtained the appropriate permits BUT they had to purchase the wine from Texas-based distributors and have the wine shipped to them before they ship it to their customers. See the last ruling in the documentation provided (click to download a large PDF) to me by the TABC and check out this link as well.

Bottom line: IT IS LEGAL for out-of-state retailers to ship here but the logistic and legal hurdles they face makes it impossible to do so.

Having said that, the TABC public relations spokesperson told me that no one has applied for a permit since the 2008 ruling. She also told me that the TABC is aware that out-of-state retailers regularly ship to Texas regardless of the law.

Above: This morning, I grabbed this screen shot from Wine Searcher. It speaks for itself.

According to the spokesperson, the TABC has never sent cease and desist letters to retailers (as stated by Lindsay) but it has sent repeated letters to UPS and Fedex telling them not to ship wine from retailers. The last letter was sent May 14, she said.

She also told me that as long as a purchase was made outside of Texas, an individual may ship wine to Texas. The purchase may not be made by a phone call placed or an email sent from Texas (because the state of Texas considers that a purchase made in Texas).

She pointed out that it’s not the TABC that makes the law but rather the Texas legislature. It’s clear from the documentation provided to me that the big commercial distributors in Texas have lobbied heavily to stop out-of-state retailers from shipping here and they are named as cross-appellants in the documents.

She also told me that she’d never heard of Gary V.

Sorry, Gary.

(Photo of Gary via Peter Hodges)