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The heavy hand of neo-prohibitionism, Down Under



In the late 1980s and 1990s we witnessed a movement in this country that came to be called “neo-prohibitionism,” a neologism that expressed a very dangerous trend.

The “prohibitionism” part was of course a reference to the disastrous “noble experiment” by which America outlawed alcoholic beverages between 1919 and 1933. That stupid, unconstitutional ban was overturned by Repeal, which itself was pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became President, proving once again that, yes, it does matter who occupies the Oval Office, because they’re not all the same.

“Neo” comes from the Latin root-word for “new.” Thus, “neo-prohibitionism” constituted the “new prohibition” or, at least, an inclination on the part of some Americans to enforce their view that the consumption of alcoholic beverages—if it could not be entirely outlawed as their predecessors had accomplished in 1919—at least could be slowed down and perhaps, at some local county and township levels, eliminated completely.

How these “neo-pros” went about their business 25 years ago was nefarious and broad-ranging. They advocated massive tax increases on alcohol (when you heavily tax a thing its consumption always falls), they put on a scare campaign about the dangers of foil capsules, they put their weight behind Mothers Against Drunk Driving (which had begun as an anti-drunk-driving group but morphed into an extreme anti-alcohol one) and they became associated with anti-alcohol fronts such as the San Rafael-based Marin Institute (now renamed Alcohol Justice). These anti-alcohol forces eventually were defeated, because they failed to gain traction among normal people, and due also to the courageous efforts of Wine Institute and its then head, John DeLuca.

Down but not out, however, the neo-pros remained silently active in their burrows, and not just in this country, but across the English-speaking world. (And isn’t it interesting that Islamic fundamentalists share with the neo-pros a common fear and loathing of alcohol?) The latest country to witness a resurgence of neo-prohibitionism, to a shocking level, is Australia, where police in the country’s largest city, Sydney, recently raided a bistro on the charge that its wine list, written on a blackboard, was “promoting unsavoury antisocial behavior.” How’s that? Apparently, in the view of the local constabulary, the bistro was encouraging people to drink!

We’ve seen this kind of response right here in my home town of Oakland, where there’s long been a movement to limit the number of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods, on the grounds that they sell cheap booze to people who then go out and commit crimes. That is a legitimate concern on the part of city government. But the Sydney bistro, 10 William Street, is not a liquor store; it is a wine bar-restaurant whose menu includes gnocchi with duck, mushrooms and ricotta, and grilled bonito with iceberg lettuce and ink vinegar.

Not exactly a poor-neighborhood gin joint!

Reaction to the Sydney cops’ heavy-handed approach has been predictably scathing. One patron who was dining there during the raid called it “bizarre” and said she was “very annoyed.” Twitter lit up with the usual snark: “full nanny state mode,” “Shock: people want to consume wine with dinner,” and I love this one: “Police claiming 10 William Street is operating as a bar, not a restaurant, clearly haven’t tried the pappardelle.”

Well, that’s the best way to counter-attack these neo-pros: Make them the objects of ridicule. Look, they will never go away. Sometimes they’re visible, sometimes they retreat, but they’re always plotting to get rid of Demon Rum. Carrie Nation may be dead these past 115 years, but her repressing spirit haunts us still.

We do not need an alternative to alcohol!



Well if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time, I don’t know what is. “Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol,” it’s called.

It was written by Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at, which is by no means a wacko rightwing pub. Ryan’s basic premise is that alcohol—the “ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world,” can cause “brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver…” Well, Ryan’s list goes on and on, but you get the idea. His solution, as the headline implies: Have the gummint look into funding studies into “alcohol replacement,” to come up with something that’s “better than booze.”

Is this the latest installment from the neoprohibitionist crowd? They never go away, do they? Look, anything and everything is potentially dangerous: automobiles, bicycling, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, flying in an airplane, joining the military, playing, making love, breathing. All we can do, as individuals and as a society, is to try and understand the risks involved, and adjust accordingly. In the case of alcohol, the solution is not to do away with it entirely, it’s to teach people the benefits (and pleasures) of moderate consumption—and to not drink and drive!!! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)

I actually don’t think Ryan is some kind of wild-eye prohibitionist, like the Marin Institute, which earned itself such a bad name that it had to reinvent itself as Alcohol Justice.

Still, in writing these inflammatory articles, Ryan links himself to the fire-eaters. He’s also not particularly consistent in his claims: A couple years ago, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly in which he condemned hyperbolic diatribes against drugs, including alcohol: “[W]e should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans” such as calling them “poisons,” he warned, because calling various drugs ‘poisons’ as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison…”.

And yet, in The Week article, Ryan states: the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious.” It is “very often terrible.” In fact, he adds, even heroin is “not as bad” as alcohol.

Those sound like alarmist simplistic slogans to me!

I’m glad that Ryan emphasized that he is “certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.” But notice that hedge: “full-scale.” Whatever does that mean? If he was really against restating prohibition, he wouldn’t use weasel words like that, he’d just come out and say “Let’s not even think of reinstating prohibition in any way, shape or form. We tried it once, and it was an abject failure and a national embarrassment.”

We already have some pretty stringent laws against alcohol consumption: age limits, shipping restrictions and so on. Alcohol is one of the most heavily-regulated consumer products in the U.S., which means that we continue to have a residue of prohibition, even though historic Prohibition was formally repealed in 1933.

I understand the concern Ryan has about all the problems associated with the inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages. But the answers are a lot more complicated than naively calling for the government to fund alternatives to it. Is that really something we want our precious tax dollars to go for? Instead, let’s be smart about this. Wine, beer and spirits are miraculous gifts to us from benign Nature. We don’t need to do away with them; we need to be smarter about using them, and we need to teach our children to be wise, not foolish, about alcohol and everything else.

Bringing common sense to wine drinking laws



Some years ago, I was working out at my gym when I saw a newcomer. He was doing bench presses. What struck me were his pe’ot, or sidecurls of hair, and the fringes of talllit–the Jewish prayer shawl–sticking out from under his sweatshirt. Surprised by the incongruity of seeing an ultra-Orthodox Jew (and a very young one, at that) in my downtown Oakland YMCA, I introduced myself, thus beginning a friendship.

Matt wanted to be a winemaker, he told me. The only problem was, he was deep into his rabbinical training, and didn’t know whether or not he’d be permitted to taste (much less drink) non-kosher wine. When he learned what I did for a living, he asked if it was important for a student of wine to taste widely.

“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. “How can you understand what great wine is all about, if you can’t taste it?”

He agreed–but the matter was out of his hands. His local rabbis, undecided as to the answer of such a Talmudic question, had referred the matter to a bigtime rabbi in Israel for the ultimate ruling. Alas, as things turned out, the big rabbi declared it would not be possible. Matt simply was not allowed to let non-kosher wine touch his lips, and with that, my new friend abandoned his winemaking aspirations.

I was reminded of Matt yesterday when I read this article in the Napa Valley Register that described how, under current law, California winemaking students under the age of 21 are not allowed to drink or taste wine! Our federal minimum-age drinking law thus puts the U.S. among only six other countries in the world (Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka) that have a 21-year age requirement for the consumption of alcohol. As you can see from this listing, most other countries have no minimum, or allow drinking between 16-18 years of age.

This high-minimum age reflects, of course, our nation’s long and convoluted history with alcoholic beverages, the product of a residue of Puritanism that still courses through our cultural bloodstream. This ambiguity peaked with the disaster of Prohibition; Repeal came officially in 1933, but not everyone accepted it. My mother’s home state of Oklahoma, for example, stayed “dry” until 1959. And even now, Oklahoma (and several other states, mostly southern and border states) continue to maintain “dry” counties.”

It’s odd and ironic that in California, where wine is a $51.8 billion industry, a young student studying enology at a school like Napa Valley College or U.C. Davis is not allowed to taste wine. That would be like prohibiting a culinary student from eating! Makes no sense, which is why I welcome the bill from Democratic State Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who represents California’s North Coast, that “would allow students who are at least 18 years old and enrolled in a winemaking or brewery science program to taste an alcoholic beverage and be exempt from criminal prosecution.” You’d expect California’s Legislature to pass it, since it’s so logical on the face of it; and I’m sure that, if the Legislature did pass it, Gov. Jerry Brown would happily sign it.

But, as the Napa Register article points out, there are people out there who don’t like alcohol and are likely to oppose Chesbro. “Opponents of the bill argue that students will use the class as an excuse to drink or become drunk.” (Sacre bleu! An excuse to drink!!! As if they can’t obtain alcohol anyway.) The article doesn’t say who these “opponents” are, but their names hardly matter; we know these neo-Prohibitionist types are always lurking at the fringes of the culture, hoping to do again what their spiritual ancestors did in 1920: make alcohol illegal for anyone to drink, with only limited exceptions.

If you, like me, are in favor of Chesbro’s bill, which is AB 1989, and you live and vote in California, I invite you to contact your own state Assembly members and Senators and urge them to support this common-sense legislation.

Dumb, dumber–and then there’s Oklahoma


I am half Oklahoman, if you can believe it. My mother, Gertrude’s, parents were settlers there, before it was a State; her father founded Oklahoma’s first synagogue; Gertrude herself was born in Oklahoma City, grew up there, and moved, after graduating from college (in an era when few women went to college), with a couple of her girlfriends, to the bright lights of the big city, New York, where she met my father and produced me, in the great borough of The Bronx. (Yes, we were taught in grade school  that it’s The Bronx, with the “T” capitalized.)

I used to visit my uncle, aunt and cousins in Oklahoma City during the summers, when I was a kid. (I remember spending an entire month digging a hole in their backyard, looking for oil, which I never found.) My mother, although she lived in New York for more than 50 years, never quite shed her Oklahoman ways. She was a southern girl for whom good manners were important–so unlike New Yorkers! She drank a little alcohol, on occasion, when I was growing up, but only for holidays, or on a rare night out for cocktails. As she aged, and after she moved to California (now as a widow) to be closer to me, her drinking picked up, stimulated, no doubt, by my own and by my cousins’. We got together frequently in mom’s last years, for dinners at home or at restaurants, and whenever my cousins and I are together at night, you can be assured many bottles of wine will be opened. Mom got into Chardonnay. She also liked her Bloody Marys. She was too consciously polite ever to admit that booze made her pleasantly high; that wouldn’t have been proper, in a southern girl raised demurely. But booze did make her pleasantly high, and I’m glad she got the chance to experience the pleasures of alcoholic beverages before she died, quickly, at the age of 90.

This is a prelude to my commentary about Oklahoma‘s attitude toward alcohol. When I was a kid, Oklahoma was still a dry state. My ancestors were liberal Jews, FDR supporters, and they liked their bourbon and branch water (as they called it), but they were like tiny little islets of reason among a huge surrounding sea of religious fundamentalism and Bible Belt prohibitionism. Still, Oklahoma, for many years in the middle part of the 20th century, had a sort of Prairie Populism that elected Democrats as easily as Republicans. The most famous was Sen. Fred Harris, whom my uncle was friends with; Harris was almost selected as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, in the 1968 election that Nixon won.

But by the 1980s, Oklahoma, like most of the south and Bible Belt, had gone solidly Republican, and conservative at that, so that today, the lone Democrats in the state may be my cousins (and I’m not even sure where their children are, politically!). This is by way of explanation concerning the chaos and stupidity that now surround the sale of alcoholic beverages in the Sooner State. Oklahoma is radically fearful of free adults being able to drink freely. The website declares that “The Oklahoma state liquor laws are very specific and limit a number of things that are legal in other states. They are some of the strictest in the nation.”

For example, “…any alcoholic beverage containing more than 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% alcohol by volume can only be sold at room temperature in state-licensed liquor stores. This includes wine, high-point beers and other liquor…Grocery stores and convenience stores can only sell low-point beer (between 0.5% and 3.2% alcohol by weight).” This mostly denies consumers the right to purchase anything other than crappy beer (and sales are entirely restricted on Sundays and holidays). Saner voices than those who rule with totalitarian rigidity have lately arisen, calling for more freedom, especially the right to buy wine in grocery stores. Oklahomans for Modern Laws (OML) is leading this fight. They currently are passing around a petition to permit the sale of wine in stores. But such is the nature of the political and religious opposition that OML has been forced to limit their call for open sales only to the largest stores (25,000 square feet or more), and then only in the state’s biggest counties. If the petition gets 155,000 signers, the issue goes on the November ballot.

Predictably, things have gotten heated and confused, even by Oklahoma standards, with some people protesting that OML is just a front for Big Box retailers. Given the flack, which has pitted even those in favor of expanded sales against each other, it doesn’t seem likely to me the petition drive will succeed and, even if it does, that the voters will pass the measure in November or, even if they do, that the ultra-conservative State legislature will allow it to stand.

Small-government conservatives are always decrying intrusive government that (they claim) won’t allow people to live their lives freely, as they see fit–including engaging in free commerce among themselves. That small-government political philosophy sounds great, until you look at states like Oklahoma, where these same “free market” politicians impose themselves on the people whenever it suits their fancy, such as limiting the people’s right to buy wine or beer whenever they want, wherever they want, at whatever temperature they want. I don’t know how these politicians can have it both ways. I do know that voters who consistently elect them shoot themselves in the foot. In putting neo-prohibitionists into office, Oklahomans–my cousins excepted–deny themselves, their friends and their families the rights and freedoms we here in California enjoy, and that all Americans should.

By the way, why are Oklahoma legislators so afraid of wine? Because in vino veritas. If Oklahomans were allowed to think clearly, they’d make radical changes to the zealots who currently represent them.

Ban Buckfast? Nope. Prohibition never works


I’ve never believed in the Prohibitionist theory that if you forbid people from ingesting certain substances you think cause them to behave badly, they’ll become perfect little angels. That was the thinking behind America’s disastrous and stupid flirtation with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (happily repealed by the 21st Amendment). Prohibitionists thought that “likker” was responsible for everything from crime and adultery to out-of-wedlock births, and that if they simply outlawed it, America would be a more moral, better-behaved country. Didn’t work, because it was based on a flawed concept that can best be expressed by the old saying, You can’t legislate morality.

That same muddled thinking characterizes this country’s failed “war on drugs.” Marijuana, at the very least, ought to be legalized and controlled (like alcohol and tobacco). This would not only pour money into the government’s empty coffers, it would reduce the number of non-violent prisoners in our states’ over-stuffed jails.

For many years there’s been an analog to all this with inexpensive fortified alcoholic beverages. Some holier-than-thou types are outraged that inner city liquor stores sell things like Night Train or Cisco which deranged people occasionally get drunk on and then go out and commit acts of mayhem. I myself live in the innermost parts of a violent city, so I, too, would like to see this kind of bad behavior disappear. But getting rid of inner city liquor stores isn’t going to solve anything. It’s a simplistic, knee-jerk response to a complicated problem that deserves much more careful analysis than just prohibiting stuff.

I was thinking of this because I just read how a Scottish Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Bob Gillies, is accusing the local Benedictine abbey of a “moral double-take” and anti-Christian behavior by producing a fortified drink, Buckfast, that’s said to be popular with “drinkers who are prone to committing anti-social behaviour when drunk, especially drinkers under 18 years.” Buckfast, also known in the Emerald Isle as “Commotion Lotion” and “Mrs. Brown,” is said to have “been mentioned in 5,000 crime reports by Scotland’s biggest police force in the last three years.”

It thus becomes a prime candidate for prohibition by people who mistakenly believe that, if you just outlaw it, those 5,000 criminals will realize the error of their ways, find religion, enter upon the true path of righteousness and morality, and become ideal citizens.

Can’t people see how dumb that is? Life doesn’t work that way. Young teenage hoodlums (and we have plenty of them here in Oakland) do the stupid things they do not because alcoholic beverages are available to them, but because their personalities are deranged. If Oakland outlawed Cisco, they’d drive over to Berkeley to buy it. If California outlawed Colt 45, they’d bring in truckloads from Nevada or Oregon. If the U.S. outlawed Colt 45 — well, we’d be back to Prohibition, wouldn’t we? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

So, Rev. Gillies, if you’re really concerned about crime, look to address its real causes, which usually concern schooling, parenting and peer pressures in the neighborhood. Banning Buckfast might make you feel better, but it will solve nothing. Prohibition never does.

My Ten for the Next Ten


I so enjoyed Bono’s “Ten for the Next Ten” op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Times that I was inspired to come up with my own version. Bono changed the traditional end-of-year Top Ten list: his “looks forward, not backward,” to developments that might make the world “more interesting, healthy or civil.” I won’t pretend that anything that could happen in the wine industry is on a scale with, say, international peace or addressing climate change (although I do think that if more people drank wine the world would be healthier and more civil). But here are my hopes for the next ten years in California wine.

Wine Experiences its Greatest Renaissance Ever

It’s been astounding to watch America grow into a true wine-drinking culture. Everywhere you look, wine is portrayed as an aspirational drink with lifestyle overtones. That’s good, but we have a long way to go; for many people, wine is still an occasional indulgence rather than an essential part of their day. That could change, but for anything to change in America requires a major force to set it in motion. “Sideways” showed how a movie can be instrumental in driving wine sales. I hope more movies present wine in a positive light. It also would be great if some of America’s cultural heroes from politics, entertainment, industry and sports were more outspoken in support of wine. Why is it that some people seem almost ashamed to talk about their love of wine? (President Obama, I’m talking to you!)

California’s Under-Performing Regions Show Improvement

Paso Robles illustrates how a wine region that was pretty rustic for a long time can get its act together with a lot of hard work. It takes people with dedication and vision, but it can happen. Such places as Temecula, the Sierra Foothills, Livermore Valley and Lodi are large and historic wine districts that for whatever reason haven’t lived up to their potential. They have to figure out their own identity, and there’s no better time than in this new decade, when the old rules are being thrown out and new ones are being written.

Wine’s Health Benefits are Far Greater Than Anyone Thought

I personally believe that a little wine helps promote relaxation and God knows we all need to relax these days. Science also has strongly suggested wine can lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. I hope scientists will continue research along these lines, and that the government will support it (instead of getting in the way as they often do), and that Big Pharma will not attempt to block research in order to preserve prescription drug sales. I mean, what would Prozac do if people knew that a glass or two of wine, plus some meditation, exercise and a healthy diet, actually cured their depression?

Wine Blog Writing Gets Seriously Good

Once upon a time all a wine blog needed in order to be taken seriously was to exist. In 2010 that’s no longer true. Winners and losers are starting to emerge, based on talent. Great writing may not be a sufficient guaranty of success for a wine blogger, but it is a necessary one. We’re starting to see strong writing in wine blogs and I hope that over the next several years we’ll see the modern equivalents of the greats be critically recognized.

Anyone in America Can Buy Wine From Any State Through the Internet, Without the Government Getting in the Way

I know what you’re thinking. Dream on, Heimoff. But it’s a good dream. No more state stores, no more interstate shipping hassles, just good old-fashioned competition among brands through low-cost broadband. It could happen.

Quality at an Affordable Price Becomes the Norm

We’re on trickier ground here, because for all of history, people have had to pay more for better wine. But we’re sort of nearing the End of History, aren’t we? At least, it feels that way. With modern revolutions in grapegrowing and winemaking, there’s no reason why the gap between great expensive wines and great inexpensive wines should not continue to narrow. It already is. What that will mean for the traditional way in which we classify wine into hierarchies (a la Bordeaux and Burgundy), I don’t know.

America Lowers Its Drinking Age to 18

It’s so stupid and illogical that Americans can be sent off to fight and die in wars at the age of 18, but they can’t enjoy a beer or wine until they’re 21. This is a relic of our Protestant ethic (in which pleasure is evil) and Prohibition. And please, don’t tell me that lowering the age will result in more car crashes. Idiotic teenagers who drink and drive are not stopped for a second by being underaged.

Corkage Disappears

As long as I’m permitted to dream… There are anecdotal reports that restaurants that drop, or significantly decrease, their corkage fees actually earn more money, because diners are then willing to spend more on appetizers and dessert. Wouldn’t it be great when you can just bring your bottles in with you with no hassles, no fear of being misunderstood or challenged, etc. I’d even be willing to bring my own wine glasses, so the owners wouldn’t have to deal with breakage.

The Rise of Italian Varieties

Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano, Montepulciano, Dolcetto, Negroamaro, Refosco, Cortese, Verdicchio, Vermentino, Vernaccia. They make nice wines over in Italy and are fun to pronounce. Why not here? Wouldn’t it be something if they turned into household names in California over the next ten years.

A Whole New Area of California Emerges as Home to Fine Wine

Where could it be? The Far North Coast (Humboldt, Siskyou, Eureka counties)? Some distant corner of the Foothills? On the road to Mammoth? A strip of hill in San Benito County? What about Ventura? You never know in this vast state, but one thing is sure: pioneers, filled with the restless, innovative spirit of risk-taking, will push the boundaries and, on occasion, stun us.

Anyway, that’s my Ten for the Next Ten.

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