For many of you, mobile technology and the internet have integrated themselves into your lives in ways that we wouldn’t have imagined even 20 years ago. Maybe you’re reading this on your phone on the way back from meeting friends at a restaurant that you chose from online reviews, and booked online as well. Maybe you’re even riding in a car you hired online through Uber. Let’s say an old friend texts you that he’s in town, and you reply with an invite to come to your place for a glass of wine. You realize that you left the air conditioning off, so you call up your house control app and reset the temperature — and turn on a couple of lights while you’re at it.
All very 21st century and up to the minute, right? Sure, until you open that bottle of wine to share. Chances are you bought it under laws in place since 1933.
That’s the year prohibition was repealed in the U.S. And most state laws governing the sale of alcohol date from that time, or a year or two later. Your grandparents and great-grandparents would have bought wine the same way you do now, despite current devices and connectivity.
How did we end up here? Part of the purpose of ending prohibition — and allowing each state to control the sale of alcohol within its borders — was to generate as much revenue as possible for the states that were hit hard by the depression. The general flouting of prohibition by the public showed that people would find ways to drink, and merchants would find ways of getting them alcohol. The state totally missed out on potential revenue for more than a decade. Ending prohibition also allowed states to enact laws prohibiting practices that had gone on before prohibition that also decreased revenue. For example, many of the taverns where alcohol was sold were owned by alcohol producers, which meant fewer transactions between manufacturer and customer (and fewer opportunities to tax those transactions).
What the states created were their own three-tier sales systems. Manufacturers (or importers) sell wholesale to distributors. Distributors sell wholesale to retailers (liquor stores, wine shops, restaurants, bars). Retailers sell to the public. The states where the businesses are located collect income tax revenue and sales tax from the final sale to the consumer. In most states, retailers can only buy from distributors also located within the same state, which means the state collects three different taxes on the alcohol, plus the fees for licensing the various businesses. (Four different taxes, if the manufacturer or importer is also located in the state.)
The three-tier system has had two huge impacts on wine drinkers. First, because the post-prohibition laws were not designed for wine but primarily for hard liquor and beer, since that’s what people were drinking. The U.S. wine industry took decades to recover from prohibition, because vineyards pulled out their wine grapes and started growing other crops. New vines were planted, of course, but it would take years before a good harvest would lead to steady and consistent production. Imports were much rarer, because transport in the proper conditions was infrequent and expensive (and ceased during World War II). Liquor and beer, made from grains, could be produced right away, and liquor had become the drink of choice because it gave you more bang for the buck (or by the glass). By the time customers could potentially have access to a good choice in wines, the laws made it more difficult for them to exercise that choice.
There was some accommodation for wine over the years, particularly in states with more wine production. The rise in the number of wineries in the U.S. led to individual states allowing customers to buy wine directly from those wineries (and, to a lesser extent, to buy beer from craft breweries too). And in a very few states, restaurants can buy from a producer in the same state as well. But many smaller wineries still find selling outside their states difficult, which brings me to the second huge impact.
Intentionally or not, the three-tier system grants an enormous amount of power to the distributors. They control what gets sold where by deciding what they’ll carry and to whom they’ll sell it. You’d think that retailers might have some of that same power and they do — but retailers far outnumber distributors so an individual retailer’s power is limited in any given state. End-user demand can sometimes percolate up the chain, but that’s rare. It’s equally likely that distributors can use their dominance to get retailers to carry products they might not necessarily want, for fear of losing the ones they do. Distributors say, when questioned about their dominance of the three-tier system, that they absorb most of the risk, that it takes just as much work (if not more) to sell specialty, low-volume wines as it does higher-volume wines, and that they serve as de facto warehousing for retailers, providing just-in-time delivery whenever it’s needed.
All of this is more or less true, although every business has its own particular crosses to bear. But what they’re not telling us is that the current system gives them a fair amount of political power as well. And since they’re the major beneficiaries of the system as it exists, they can and do use their political power to help keep it that way. That means persuading state legislators to limit your ability to buy wine online from outside the state and trying to roll back laws beneficial to consumers in ways I’ve described in previous posts. And really, can you blame them? Protectionism is the first — and often most effective — recourse. State governments might think about becoming more amenable to revising the laws, but in the absence of powerful voices calling for change, they’re often willing to keep things as they are (and preserve current revenue streams).
Many states have changed their laws to allow you to buy wine online from U.S. wineries and have it shipped to you. Some states also allow retailers to ship, although far fewer. But because of (generally) high permit fees and complex monthly compliance paperwork to complete for each state, these businesses have to decide if it’s worthwhile. Most of them decide not. In Maryland, for example, some 600 out-of-state wineries have shipping permits. This sounds like a lot, until you consider that there are around 3,800 wineries in California alone, and nearly 9,000 in the entire U.S. States justify their permit and reporting systems by citing the cost and requirements of alcohol licenses for in-state businesses, but in fact all of those wineries and retailers looking to ship have to be licensed in their home states to begin with (with those states’ own license fees and reporting requirements). Permitting effectively just serves to weed out those that can’t afford either the fees or the time for monthly compliance. Maryland’s permit system was hailed as a victory for consumers. It is, compared to the complete prohibition it replaced, but it hardly makes for a wide-open marketplace of wine. (Only one-third of one percent of wine sales by volume in Maryland come from outside the state.)
So most consumers are still buying wine in the 1930s-era supply chain dominated by distributors. The thing is, as wealthy and influential as distributors are, their numbers pale in comparison to wine consumers. But since most people’s livelihoods don’t depend on state alcohol laws, we don’t follow the legislative agendas of the various states to see where we can be helpful. Some states have good consumer organizations dedicated to changing outdated wine laws. Still, even Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws needs help from people in other states to help change Maryland laws. Getting that help hasn’t been as easy as it should be, because there hasn’t been a national organization dedicated to the needs of wine consumers.
The American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) is a brand-new organization representing wine buyers and drinkers throughout the U.S. AWCC’s mission is to help make as many different wines as possible available to consumers in every state. If you can buy any mattress or olive oil available in the U.S., why not any wine? The wine marketplace can be open and still protect the interests of all parties. This includes keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors, generating revenue for states, providing choice for consumers, and increased sales opportunities for wineries and wine merchants.
Over two-thirds of Americans of legal age drink wine at least occasionally. Shouldn’t all 170 million of us wine drinkers have more choice? If you want to keep going to your local wine store (and you should, please!) that’s great. But shouldn’t you also be able to order that wine you had on your honeymoon abroad, even though it’s only available from one retailer in another state?
No matter where you live, if you’re a wine drinker, please consider joining AWCC. Your $35 membership fee helps the organization get expertise into critical debates, and a broad base of support means that your voice can be heard when and where it’s needed. Enough voices and someone will have to listen, right?
I got a lot of fun e-mails after last week’s tapas diatribe. One person noted that “the worst thing is that you end up with a couple of plates that have a little bit of food left on each one, because no one wants to be the person who takes the last bite.”
It’s true. If two of you are sharing a regular-sized plate of food, you’ll take half and pass the rest on. But if more people are sharing little portions on little plates? Unless you have your micro-calipers handy, you’ll be cutting those teeny things by eye. And no one wants to be seen taking more than his or her share, so everyone takes just a little bit — leaving a last morsel of food that everyone eyes like vultures at the end. Of course, there are never as many of those bits left at the end as there are people at the table, are there? So you can’t just ask each person to pick a favorite among the leftovers and have at it.
One trick to avoiding the end-of-meal stare-fest is to finish with something that comes in discrete servings and ask your server to bring enough so each person at the table gets two of them. Albondigas, or meatballs, are a great choice. Every Spanish tapas place has them, and they’re satisfying comfort food. They’re great hot or at room temperature, so even if they come before the end of the meal, let them sit — then you can dole them out and everyone gets a treat.
There are as many recipes for albondigas as there are people who make them. I like to add Serrano ham or Prosciutto to albondigas, and cook them in a sauce with more ham for more flavor. Adding a little cinnamon and smoked paprika to the tomato sauce helps a lot too. They’re easier to make if you have a tablespoon-size ice cream scoop — it saves a lot of rolling and keeps the meatballs a little more tender rather than compact.
Even though it’s summer, albonidgas cry out for red wine. So try our newest Spanish red — Bodega Hiriart Crianza ($19). It’s 100% Tempranillo from vines that are at least 40 years old, aged for a year in oak then a year in the bottle. Think of it as a grown-up version of the Hiriart Roble, richer and more complex. If you’re having a little cheese afterward, like Manchego, it’ll carry you through. Don’t worry if it’s hot outside — since you won’t be sweating over dividing up the albondigas, you can have a little red wine!
Serves 8 tapas-style, 4 as a first course
1 pound lean ground beef
2 ounces thinly-sliced Serrano ham or Prosciutto
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, put through a garlic press
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt (the ham is already salty)
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
A large pinch of ground nutmeg
Break the ground beef up and put it into a large bowl. Finely chop the ham, or coarsely chop it and put it in a mini-food processor with half of the bread crumbs and process until it’s ground up. Sprinkle the ham and the rest (or all) of the breadcrumbs and the parsley on top. Beat the egg in small bowl with the garlic, salt, and nutmeg. Pour the egg mixture over everything in the bowl. Using a large fork or your hands, gently mix everything together, taking care not to compact the mixture. Using a 1-tablespoon ice cream scoop, scoop out the meatballs and put them on a dinner plate. When you’ve formed them all, put the plate of meatballs in the fridge while you start the sauce (they’ll firm up a bit and won’t fall apart when they cook).
1 – 28 ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes (I like Muir Glen brand), drained and juice reserved
2 ounces thinly-sliced Serrano ham or Prosciutto, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup beef stock
Salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and ham together in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, until the ham gets a little golden. Add the garlic, paprika, some pepper, and the cinnamon and cook for another minute. Add the drained tomatoes and the beef stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, then taste for salt and pepper and set aside.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large nonstick frying pan that also has a lid. Add the meatballs and let them fry for about 4 minutes. Then turn them over and let them cook for a minute. Gently pour the sauce over the meatballs. It should come up more than halfway on the meatballs — if not, add some of the juice that you drained from the tomatoes. Bring everything to a simmer, then lower the heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and raise the heat a bit for a minute to evaporate some of the liquid. (The sauce should be thick.) Serve immediately, or let them cool to room temperature.