The Great Florida Grape Stomp

Prohibition-era legislation forbidding mail-order booze shipments has local wine lovers whining

Beverly Causey is quite the connoisseur. In August of last year she telephoned Rochambeau Wines and Liquors in Dobbs Ferry, New York, proffered her American Express card number, and ordered a bottle of '91 Chateau Montelena zinfandel for $14.99 plus $11.50 shipping and handling. In September she followed up with another phone order to St. Helena Wine Merchants in California's Sonoma Valley. This time she spent a total of $25.75 for a mail-order delivery of '88 Culbertson Brut Reserve. The bottle of bubbly arrived on her porch the next day, via Federal Express.

During a four-month shopping spree, Causey spent $230.61, drove eight miles doing six hours of research on fine wines, and wound up with a tiny stockpile of thirteen bottles from some of America's most select boutique wineries. Yet the bottles have never been uncorked. Causey's swag resides not in her personal wine cellar but in a government property vault in Tallahassee. That's because Causey is a special agent for the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, and the fruits of her labors are now the prime physical evidence in a federal lawsuit brought by Florida liquor cops against out-of-state wine merchants.

Prohibition-era laws make it illegal for residents of Florida and most other states to pick up the phone (or log on to the Internet) and order a case of their favorite pinot noir from a producer or retailer in another part of the country. The reason for this, officials say, is that direct shipments of wine via FedEx or United Parcel Service circumvent the six-percent Florida sales tax normally paid by the purchaser, and a $2.25-per-gallon excise tax paid by in-state distributors. Last year Florida's wine excise tax, one of the highest in the nation, pumped $69.6 million into government coffers.

Defendants in the federal lawsuit -- seven New York and California wine clubs and direct-mail merchants -- say the Florida law hampers free trade. Wine consumers say it restricts freedom of choice. There are more than 2000 wine producers in the United States (900 in California alone) and many of their products are not available through licensed Florida wine distributors. In smaller cities and towns, the variety of wine sold in stores is often quite slim.

"I like to consume wine, and I like to buy it at a good price," says Miami lawyer and wine collector Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. "I like to have a lot of choice in the kind of wine I buy. The problem begins when you read Wine Spectator and you go down to Crown Liquors thinking, I sure would like to try that. Well, damn! It's not there. You go to some other stores, and they don't have it either."

Pete Downs, a spokesman for Kendall-Jackson Winery in Santa Rosa, California, explains that the number of U.S. wineries has exploded in recent years while the number of wine distributors has shrunk through business consolidation. As a result, small wineries with limited advertising resources find it nearly impossible to get noticed by big distributors. "The distributor takes the path of least resistance, which means going with popular labels that are already fairly well established," Downs says. "Without a way to market themselves in a state, the small producers turn to mail-order shipping."

Culverhouse, whose family owns tens of thousands of acres of citrus groves around Arcadia, says he's concerned about the possibility of a California backlash. On March 22, when Kentucky upgraded its laws to make mail-order wine imports a felony, Kendall-Jackson, one of the nation's top fifteen wine producers, announced it would stop doing any business in Kentucky. Fifty other West Coast vineyards have since followed suit. Culverhouse fired off a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles warning that a boycott of Florida orange juice and grapefruit by California could be in the offing.

"I don't see that happening, but I wish it would," muses John S. Thomas, director of Gourmet Beverage Advocacy, a Temecula, California-based grassroots lobby for the oenophile crowd. "A citrus boycott would force Florida to change its silly laws, and we'd have free trade like our Constitution says we're supposed to. I call the current nonsense in Florida back-door Prohibition."

Thomas and others say wine shipments should be treated similarly to most other mail-order products: The out-of-state producer would add the appropriate taxes to the bill, then be liable for turning over the money to the government.

Critics claim that Florida's sting operation against the $750 million direct-delivery wine business is motivated less by public interest than by the influence of powerful wine distributors such as Miami-based Southern Wine and Spirits, Inc. And the defendants in the federal lawsuit are not alone in suggesting that the government and alcohol distributors are in bed together.

When Governor Chiles replied to Culverhouse's March 13 letter criticizing state wine regulation, the Florida he-coon urged the Miami lawyer to contact John Harris, director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, for further assistance. This was an interesting suggestion: Eight days earlier, the governor's own chief inspector general, Harold Lewis, had penned a scathing report criticizing Harris for being too cozy with liquor distributors.

The report by Lewis details private meetings in Fort Lauderdale between Harris and 30 wine-and-spirits manufacturers in November 1995, describes an ongoing mutiny by Harris's 170 enforcement agents, and questions why Harris personally intervened in a recent departmental investigation of big distributors.

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