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Cheers to the American Wine Consumer Coaltion



It may be somewhat brash for Tom Wark to call his new group the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) and make the claim that it “is the only national advocacy group that works to advance the interests of America’s wine consumers.”

I doubt that masses of consumers voluntarily gathered into a coalition and then asked Tom to run it. But you know what, folks? That’s how you get things done these days. You don’t wait for the public to organize themselves. Instead, you create a group that purports to represent the public, and then wait for them to join up.

There’s a big difference, though, between an Astroturf group and one with a valid claim to legitimacy, such as AWCC has. An Astroturf group is phony, like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that sound legitimate but are just false fronts designed to promote the [hidden] interests of [unidentified] sponsors. That’s bad (except that, in this post-Citizens United era, our SCOTUS has made it inevitable).

On the other hand, AWCC really does represent the interests of American consumers, even if it’s presently leading a parade with a very small following. I hope that changes.

Why do I say AWCC represents the interests of American consumers? It’s obvious: with all the stupid laws against direct shipping, particularly on the state level, consumers are ill-served by the present system, which is an anachronistic vestige of Prohibition and the Repeal laws that dissembled it, yet still left in place a very difficult situation for wineries to negotiate. It’s clear that behind the barriers to direct shipping lie two formidable forces: (1) an inherent anti-alcohol bias, and (2) the tremendous clout of Big Alcohol, especially Big Beer and Big Liquor, who really do not desire a truly free distribution system.

It’s fine for Big Alcohol to fight free and fair trade: they have their rights. The problem is that consumers, who should also have rights, have nobody to argue for them. In State capitals and in the nation’s capital, no paid lobbyists exist to argue for the rights of ordinary adult Americans to buy wine from anywhere they choose, and have it sent to them in the mail. That this is anti-consumer is clear, and it flies patently in the face of arguments, by Republicans and Democrats alike, who claim they’re in favor of the free market, competitive capitalism America loves to trumpet. I don’t see how any politician can claim to be in favor of free market capitalism and then say to little family wineries, in effect, “You’re free to market and sell your wine if you want to. But, oh, by the way, we’ll design the system in such a way as to make it impossible.”

I love that Tom writes, in the mission statement, his aim to “Gather under the AWCC roof a supportive and educated community of wine lovers who are willing to help advance a pro-consumer agenda where alcohol laws and regulations are concerned.” It will not be easy. One can look to past successful efforts to rally millions of Americans–the Civil Rights struggle was one, and so (regrettably) has been the advent of the Tea Party. Choice in purchasing alcohol, however, doesn’t rise to the level of such dramatic political upheavals; I doubt we’re going to see a mass movement of consumers to gather under AWCC’s roof, at least in numbers significant enough to make an impact on the addled attention of elected politicians. But I wonder why the libertarian wing of the Republican Party doesn’t support expanding these freedoms to Americans.

Still, I wish Tom and AWCC every good wish, and will do what I can to help. I hope Tom will reach out to those of us in the media and help us help him. This is potentially an important development, an opportunity for America to truly practice what it preaches when it comes to the freedom of choice in the marketplace. I think America is ready for it, and I congratulate Tom for spearheading the effort.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    Yes Steve, we all know you are a bleeding heart. Do you have to infest so many of your otherwise entertaining and informative posts with (not so) subtle jabs that add no substance?

  2. “Big” Wine Critics use their trememdous clout to write blog posts that insert sophomoric references to people that scare them.

  3. Hey Grapes and PA: This is a blog, and the writer has free speech rights on it, just as you do in any reply. But can we please discuss the substance of the post, which is indeed relevant to the rights of consumers to buy whatever wine they want. Consumers don’t yet have that right.

  4. Steve,

    Thanks, very much for the attention paid to the AWCC. You’ve been a champion of wine consumers rights for a long time.

    I want to point out that it’s not just me. A number of committed folks are helping move the AWCC and consumer rights forward either as members of the board, benefits providers, providing pro bono legal services and otherwise.

    The fact is, wine consumers have never banded together to push their own, real, legitimate agendas and it won’t take hundreds of thousands of AWCC members to do that. As more wine lovers join, pay the $35 annual dues and he organization grows, the 1000s instead of hundreds of thousands of members can make a monumental difference is the course of legislation across the country in state after state.

    Finally, the interesting thing abut wine politics is that it is non-partisan. You rarely see splits on issues of wine shipping or wine in grocery stores, etc are along party lines.

    Again thanks! I hope lots and lots of wine lovers see your article and choose to join the AWCC.

  5. Patrick,

    Steve has the same rights as I do, correct… but when he uses a post on one subject to make unrelated political statements, I have the right to comment on the sophomoric nature of said post.

    What does he mean by “Big” Alcohol? Suppliers? Large Wineries? Breweries? Wholesalers? “Big” is just a derogatory term that liberals use when they want to demonize someone instead of having a debate on the actual facts. So, if Steve wants to stimulate actual debate (which I highly doubt) then he would be more clear in his writing.

  6. The way I read it, Steve was speaking about a system that doesn’t allow small business to compete. Is that based on liberalism or a belief in the free market?

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    PA Wine,

    My God you’re a simpleton. Stop trying to make everything fit some neat, tidy Fox News narrative. Not everything fits neatly into a partisan political divide, so quit trying to cram it into one.

    Big, simply means Big….B-I-G…as in large or gargantuan (love that word and so rarely get to use it in a sentence)enterprises. As a result of their size and market impact (and political donations), these enterprises can often exert undue influence over regulatory lawmaking and decisions. With regards to the alcohol industry, I’ve seen it happen in overwhelmingly Democratic states (New York is currently a perfect example) and overwhelmingly Republican ones. It’s not a partisan issue.

  8. Bill,

    I was not the one that referenced the Tea Party, a Supreme Court decision and the Koch brothers in a blog post about consumer access to wine. What Steve means by “Big” is cental to this debate, as “Big” wholesalers are often on the opposite side of the “Big” brewers and “Big” wineries, who would love to sell directly to retailers and are blocked from doing so by wholesalers. If these large suppliers had this right, so would small wineries. Thus, who he means by “Big” is extremely important.

    I can assure you that I am not a simpleton, and actually know quite a bit about this issue. In PA, consumer access to wine is blocked by Democrats and Unions. In other states, there are Republicans that do the same thing…

    Steve wonders why the libertarian wing of the Rupublican party doesn’t advocate more on this issue, yet if he spent five minutes on a google search he could have found examples of them doing just that. Steve is a fine writer but when he wanders into politics his beliefs cloud his writing and lower its quality greatly.

  9. As a small winery, the three-tiered system works really well for us. We can’t afford a national sales channel, so we work with a few dozen distributors that give us national distribution. I think that the abolishment of the 3-tiered system would really backfire

  10. Bill Haydon says:

    Looking at this with clear eyes though, how can Tom Wark’s group NOT be called astroturf? He is an industry insider. His client base is made up wholly of small and medium sized wineries and vintners associations. Small California wineries literally put the food on his table and the roof over his head–not to mention that samples in his glass and party invites in his mailbox. Can anyone seriously consider that his “consumers’ organization” will ever dare take a position that is in opposition to that of the people who are his livelihood?

    The whole thing screams, “ASTROTURF!”

  11. Gabe, no one, not even Steve is wanting the abolishment of the 3 tiers. The demand is for allowing wineries the ability to choose how they may sell their wine. Requiring it be sold to a wholesaler before it is sold to a retailer is not choice. Many wineries may still use the middle tier, but some would not. Also, no one is requiring restaurants allow BYOB, but the AWCC would like restaurants to have the option in all states. Same with Sunday sales. No one is saying that a store must sell on Sunday or that a consumer must buy, but making it illegal just restricts consumer choice.

    Bill, Tom is one of many people behind the AWCC and as executive director he is the public face. But guess what, he is also a consumer… I’d love for you to provide an example of an AWCC issue that is in opposition to consumers’ interests.

  12. Bill Haydon, I disagree. If you start from the premise that American consumers truly are ill-served by the present system, then it’s not hard to see the AWCC as a populist organization.

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    Whether the American consumer is or is not ill served by the current system does NOT automatically make the AWCC a populist organization. It only means that there is a need for a true consumer organization. AWCC is an organization founded and run by someone representing small, domestic wineries masquerading as a “populist organization.” That, Steve, is the very definition of astroturf–and I think you’re smart enough to know that, which is why you took so much effort in an attempt to debunk any such linkage. Me doth think thou protest too much.

    Let me ask you this, would you, Tom, Charlie Oiken and others who are trumpeting this organization–and who also are closely tied to the small to medium sized California wine industry–still feel as strongly if it were founded and run by a man on the payroll (and it might be as a consultant, but that is exactly what Mr. Wark is) of only large, supermarket wineries (Gallo, Boisset, DuBoef, Constellation), or how about if his client list was solely small, terroir-centric importers (Rosenthal, Dressner, Lynch et al)? How about if he were a consultant only for wholesalers? Would he still have legitimacy in setting up a “populist, consumer organization.”

    Secondly, just check out Mr. Wark’s current blog posting. He’s advocating something (self-distribution) that is 100% something that is carrying water for the wineries. Direct to consumer and cross border retail shipping are things that consumers do care about, but I doubt one in a million gives a rat’s ass about whether wineries have the right to self-distribute. It’s not a consumer issue, but there it is front and center. Even Mr. Wark’s own calculations in the post show that there is no benefit to consumers, merely extra profits staying with the winery. It didn’t take too long or too deep of a scratch of surface to see the real priorities here.

    What’s even more sad is that I highly doubt that this cynicism or hypocrisy even registers. No. In fact, I find it quite plausible that people like Tom Wark truly and deeply believe that whatever is in the best interest of Napa, Sonoma or Paso wineries would just have to be in the interest of the sheep…errr, consumers. The self-deluding and self-importance of Napatude is just that strong. It often reminds me of that brilliant South Park take down of San Francisco. They got it right, but they should have just focused about 60 miles north.

  14. We live in a country where our economic system is based on capitalism and the “free market.” A small business, winery or otherwise, should not be forced to cut its margins in half by being forced to sell through a system whereby their products end up in the hands of the same end consumer if the small business were allowed to sell direct. If the small business chooses to use that system then so be it, otherwise the small business should be allowed to profit from the full margin of selling direct to the consumer. That’s American as apple pie.

  15. Bill Haydon:

    If you are really interested in who and what I’m carrying water for, why look only at the most current post on my blog? Really what you should do is take a look at the 2,676 posts I’ve published on my blog since 2004. Then you’ll be able to get to the heart of the matter. I look forward to your analysis of those 2,676 posts.

    The American Wine Consumer Coalition is a result of one thing and one thing only: seeing that consumers are not consulted when lawmakers and regulators fashion laws and regulations concerning consumer access to wine and that as a result, wine consumers do not possess the simplest rights that consumers of any other product do.

    Two years ago there were Congressional hearings on the “CARE Act”, a bill that if passed would have had a huge impact on consumer access to wine. Guess how many consumers or representatives of consumers were invited to testify? Take a guess……….That’s right. None. You know why? There was no organization that spoke up for the interests of wine consumers. Now there is.

    Now, if you think that the truth of my own commitment to a consumer-focused voice in the realm of wine politics can best be derived from looking at what I tend to write about on my own blog, then that’s fine with me. It’s a somewhat narrow understanding of human motivation, but I’m down with this.

    Just this month I’ve written about how golf and wine connect with a similar demographic, how consumers decide to buy a wine, the ideas behind a study on wild yeast fermentation, the intersection of pop culture and wine sales, the proposal to allow the U.S. Postal Service to deliver wine, the varied motivations behind consumer wine purchases, the arrival of a new website that has winemakers recommending wine, and the issue of self distribution in Indiana, that you refer to.

    You’ll also find an homage to my Mother on the front page of my blog.

    Hmm…What’s an cynic to think?

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