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Bringing common sense to wine drinking laws

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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

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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 About.com 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

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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

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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.


Marin Institute issues another lie, this one even more ridiculous than usual

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Why anyone would take seriously anything the Marin Institute says about wine is beyond me, especially when they pretend to be friends of the small wineries they’ve tried for years to destroy.

We are talking major chutzpah here when this neoprophibitionist group, which has tried to stifle if not strangle the wine industry, comes out crying crocodile tears for family winemakers whom they say they’re trying to protect from the “global alcohol giants” they accuse of driving “the Family Winery” out of business. They issued a press release the other day just before picketing the Wine Institute, which they said should be renamed “the ‘Big Alcohol Institute’.” (Incidentally, no one came to their little demonstration except for a clutch of cold MI members who shivered for about 15 minutes, then called it a day. Evidently, Marin Institute’s call for a big protest, issued on their PR Newswire press release, was a complete failure.)

Marin Institute rally photo

Cold, lonely Marin Institute members picketing on Market Street

Far from being concerned about little wineries, this is the organization whose web site says its “vision” is “communities free of the alcohol industry’s negative influence and an alcohol industry that does not harm the public’s health.” It has tried (unsuccessfully) to ban wine and other alcoholic beverage advertising, even on the Super Bowl telecast, to raise excise taxes on alcohol (also unsuccessfully), and — most spectacularly unsuccessfully — to cause laws to be passed prohibiting families from serving their children wine within their own homes for religious, cultural or simple celebratory reasons, as if millennia of giving kids a teaspoon of wine in a glass of water has harmed Italians, French, Portuguese, Jews, Greeks, Germans and others whose roots in wine go back to Biblical times.

And this is the group that now has the gall to claim “Big Alcohol…exploits California wine imagery” by fostering “the industry-spun myth of family-grown wine from Napa and Sonoma” while in reality being dominated by “Diageo, Constellation Brands, and Brown-Forman” who “call the shots” while the little wineries, ostensibly their pawns, roll over to be plundered and ravaged.

Let’s get the facts straight. Most California wineries are small and family-owned. At the Wine Institute, each winery gets precisely one vote, regardless of size or affiliation. According to Wine Institute, of 3,000 wineries in California, half produce 5,000 cases or less. This hardly suggests an inordinate dominance by corporate entities, much less a malicious plot by them to rule the little guys. In response to Marin Institute’s charges, Wine Institute issued a statement that said, in part: “Marin Institute’s attempt to portray Wine Institute and its 900+ winery members, the overwhelming majority of which are small, family-owned businesses, as serving interests other than those of California wine is incorrect…Wine Institute and its members support the responsible consumption of wine in moderation in keeping with the advice of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The vast majority of wine consumers enjoy wine responsibly with meals and should not be penalized for the societal problem of alcohol abuse.”

Are there problems of little wineries competing against big ones? Certainly, especially on the distribution side. But no one should believe for a second that Marin Institute gives a damn about little wineries or the families who run them. Marin Institute’s agenda is the same as it always was: to cripple the industry the way Prohibition did.


Let’s cut the crap and stop accusing the alcohol industry of “causing” problems!

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I’m of two minds when it comes to California raising taxes on wine, beer and spirits. (Yes, that issue is still on the table, and was the subject yesterday of a hearing by the Assembly Committee on Health.)

California, like other states, is in the toilet financially, and Schwarzenegger and the (mostly Democratic) legislators are looking for every dime they can raise. (Republicans are calling for spending cuts.) Schwarzenegger is a Republican, of course, but at least he has the cojones to admit he’s raising taxes after promising not to because California is on the verge of fiscal Armageddon and he has no choice. Ronald Reagan did the same thing when he was Governor; he raised taxes after saying he wouldn’t. Reagan and Schwarzenegger, like most Governors, are political pragmatists in the long run.

I don’t mind an honest discussion over taxes vs. spending cuts. But the discussion turns dishonest when the likes of Assemblyman Jim Beall (who introduced the alcohol tax hike bill) and the Marin Institute step in to spread their skein of lies and half-truths. The Democrat from San Jose and the fiercely anti-alcohol Marin Institute insist their support for the alcohol tax hike isn’t because the money is needed, it’s because the alcoholic beverage industry “causes” fetal alcohol syndrome and DUI fatalities and must “pay” for its sins.

“The industry must start paying its fair share for the problems their products cause,” Beall insists. On his government website, he goes even further:

“The alcohol industry creates devastating problems – traffic accidents, alcoholism – and walks away with money stuffed in its pockets while the public — including non-drinkers — are left to pay billions for the mess.’’

His friend Bruce Livingston, the Marin Institute’s executive director, backs up these incendiary falsehoods. “Now is the time to charge Big Alcohol for the $38.4 billion … in harm their products cause every year in California.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the alcohol industry doesn’t “cause” anything. It’s stupid people who cause problems: the idiot mother who gets loaded while pregnant, the moron who drinks and drives. Blaming a winery because someone who drinks their wine got into a traffic accident is just plain stupid-headed and unfair. It reminds me of the burglar who tried to break into a store at night through a rooftop window and fell through, hurting himself. He sued the store he was trying to rob! “It wasn’t my fault I got hurt, it’s because they put a dangerous window there and they should have known better.”

I DON’T THINK SO, KNUCKLEHEAD!

I can do no better than to quote this statement from a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut:

“Mr. Beall and Marin’s whole strategy of taxing people sober (with the long-term goal of eventually going back to prohibition) is fatally flawed…Research indicates that the heaviest drinkers do not curb their drinking in response to higher prices, unlike light-to-moderate drinkers, for whom there can be positive health benefits…If alcohol abusers are truly addicted, will an extra ‘dime a drink’ stop them? Will a career criminal decide to not get drunk before his next crime spree because of a 10-cent-per-drink tax? Of course not.”


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