The Great Florida Grape Stomp

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

"The wine clubs that I represent would be absolutely delighted to pay sales and excise tax," says Robert Wright, a Miami attorney hired by New York's Zachy's Wine and Liquor, Inc., and the other defendants in the state action. "But those are bogus issues. What this is really about is a three-tiered monopoly made up of state-sanctioned producers, distributors, and retailers. You and I are paying for a lot of middle men."

Wright credits state prosecutors with brilliant legal maneuvering. By trying the case in federal court, Florida avoids the outside chance of a state judge overturning the existing wine laws. And by going after small wine clubs, he says, the state may be able to establish an inexpensive precedent it can use to intimidate larger mail-order shippers. The strategy seems to be working. Three of the seven defendants have given up and settled with the state.

But Wright has his own zippy legal stratagems lined up. This week, in a hearing in Tallahassee before U.S. District Judge William Stafford, he plans to unveil what looks like a smoking gun, albeit one of small caliber.

The original complaint filed by Attorney General Bob Butterworth states that officials are dutifully looking after the "health, safety, and welfare of the people of Florida." But scrawled on a page of one government exhibit --and out-of-state ad mailed by St. Helena Wine Merchants in California -- is a handwritten note: "Wayne: Is there any way to STOP this? Mel." An address on the exhibit shows that the flyer was sent to 1600 NW 163rd St. in North Dade, the location of Southern Wine and Spirits, Inc. Corporate records list Wayne E. Chaplin as president and chairman of the company. Mel Dick is the firm's senior vice president and president of its wine division.

Neither executive responded to requests for comment.
Ed Towey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, says Wright's collusionary contentions are poppycock. While big distributors may have played a role in alerting the government to out-of-state wine shipments, they are not the driving force behind the crackdown, he contends.

"Whoever else may benefit by a lawsuit that we bring is secondary to the fact that we have a duty to enforce the beverage laws," Towey says. "Look, we recognize that we're dealing with regulation crafted in the Thirties that never contemplated the sort of technology and communications we have today. But there are ways to revolt without engaging in anarchy. These people are flagrantly violating the law. Meanwhile the state is being cheated out of money. These people could even be shipping to underage consumers, and we have no way of knowing."

Wright is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. "The case is before a truly excellent judge," he says hopefully. "Does he drink wine? I don't know if he does or not. Good question.

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