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As some dumb old laws are struck down, others stubbornly remain

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A few days ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new bill into law, SB 607, that permits home winemakers to enter their wines in competitions and judgings.

Believe it or not, until the new law went into effect, it was illegal for a home winemaker to enter her wine in an amateur winemaking competition (of which there are an increasing amount in the country). The bill’s authors, Sen. Patricia Wiggins and Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, both Santa Rosa Democrats, noted that even though the old law was not widely enforced, if at all, “the growing legions of home winemakers did not deserve to have an arcane section of state law hanging over them.”

Under the old law, Californians were permitted to produce up to 200 gallons of homemade wine per year without a license, but it was illegal for the wine to be served to others, or to be moved from where it was made — which, technically, made entering the wine into home winemakers’ festivals against the law. The new bill was passed unanimously in both houses of the California legislature.

Good for Wiggins and Evans. The ban on entering homemade wine in contests was just one more dumb leftover of this country’s post-Prohibition policy regarding wine, but it’s hardly the only one. How about the arcane laws that apply to the interstate shipping of wine, including consumers’ right to buy wine anywhere in the U.S. and have it shipped to their homes regardless of what state they inhabit? More than three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states are prohibited from making it illegal for consumers to buy wine directly from wineries located outside their states, the battle still goes on in individual states, as the wine wholesaler and distribution lobby uses its clout to stymie direct-to-consumer wine shipments. According to Free the Grapes, a pro-consumer group, such shipments are still prohibited in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky (where it’s a felony), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee (another felony state) and Utah (felony).

(Incidentally, most of these states voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Anyone see anything in that?)

In addition, the blogger Tom Wark, over at his fermentation website, has done a great job reporting on the situation in other states, such as Illinois, where a new bill just went into law that seems directly contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Supreme Court’s decision. That law prohibits Illinoisians from buying wine directly from out-of-state merchants (as opposed to wineries). As Wark sardonically notes, “the real bottom line here is that Illinois consumers just got bent over…”

What will it take for America to allow the free movement of wine in this country among adults? Following the May, 2005 Supreme Court decision, I asked that question of Ken Starr, who led the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton but who (partially) redeemed himself by being lead counsel for the free shipping side in the Supreme Court case. Starr replied, “My crystal ball is as cloudy as anyone’s, but I’ll predict all fifty states…will in fact move to some form of non-discrimination system within ten years.”

If he’s correct, we still have a good seven years to go.

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