We’re in the midst of a crisis. The majority of the scientific community agrees it’s a crisis and that there are important yet relatively simple things we can do to stop it from getting much worse. It affects public health and the economy. Most people agree that the crisis is real. But there’s a small vocal minority who don’t believe what they’ve been told. They refuse to take any action, no matter how small, to help protect their fellow citizens. And they’re encouraged by some in government, who have prioritized the economy over health. Where there has been robust government response, it has come from the state and local level.
You’ve probably guessed I’m talking about Covid-19. But the old enviro in me also realized back in April that it’s playing out the same way as another crisis that’s been happening for a long time: Global warming.
I started working on global warming issues in 1997, and some of my colleagues had already been at it for around two decades back then. The U.S. dismissed several opportunities to make a dent in global warming emissions, and increasing urgency hasn’t made federal action any more likely. Instead, there’s continued talk of how doing something about the problem will tank the economy, and how it’s all China’s fault anyway. It has been up to governors and mayors to make emissions reduction plans and switch to renewable energy. Same song, different crisis.
This is a blog about wine, of course. (Don’t worry, I’m getting to it!) Both crises have affected the wine industry, in the U.S. and around the world. Back in the late 1990s, I reviewed a study of how global warming had already affected the California wine industry, driving production northward into cooler areas to maintain quality. And back in 2018, I wrote about how the effects have accelerated, making it more difficult for certain wine-producing regions to maintain appellation traditions and quality.
The wine industry has responded partly through adaptation (trying their best to make their traditional wines by modifying production methods), but also by reducing carbon emissions in farming and fermentation. Wineries have also tried to influence reductions up and down the supply chain, from bottle manufacturing to transportation.
Covid-19 has produced different challenges. It won’t necessarily stop winemakers from making wine per se. But they’ll have a lot more difficulty getting workers to help harvest the grapes than in past years because of travel restrictions. And there’s the selling part. Restaurant sales are way down, and winery tasting rooms are subject to the same kinds of rules as other businesses deemed non-essential. The wine industry also depends on travel and tourism, which are suffering greatly as well.
Winemaking hasn’t been on the radar for national policies addressing global warming, and I can’t imagine it will be a driver for new economic relief now, either. But if I had my wish list, here’s what I would ask for from the federal government as part of a Covid-19 crisis response plan for businesses:
In the short term, the tariffs already in place on some European wines should be repealed, and new ones should be rejected. This will keep wine prices down and keep people in the wine industry employed. (Read about them here.)
Longer term assistance would make wine and other alcohol easier to buy online, both from wineries and retailers. Online sales are growing rapidly as people stay home, and many wine fans will keep buying this way after the pandemic is over. But buying wine online across state lines is difficult because of individual regulations in each state.
As I’ve mentioned before, the state-by-state regulation built into the repeal of Prohibition was deemed necessary to get state buy-in back in the early 1930s. Despite legal action that has since made it possible for wine to be shipped across state lines, individual states can gum up the works by making it time consuming and expensive to get state shipping permits. And then there’s the process of collecting and remitting state income taxes, excise taxes, and monthly state reports that are often more complex and take longer to complete than federal tax forms. So while many states “allow” shipping, it might not be worth it to small wineries that can’t afford the permits or hire someone to deal with all the paperwork.
There’s definitely a role for the federal government, though. I suggest providing incentives to states to allow generous, reasonably priced permits for shipment of wine, beer, and spirits from both producers and retailers outside their borders. Government should further facilitate the process by developing a common application for state permits, as well as forms/systems for reporting and paying state sales taxes. Wineries, breweries, distilleries, importers, and even some distributors can’t operate without federal permission, and granting (or extending) that permission could be contingent on how each state regulates sales. States that comply and make things easier could also receive federal aid to further help their own alcoholic beverage industries, which often greatly contribute to the states’ economies. And some money for state infrastructure projects could be tied to states’ policies on alcohol sales.
So yeah, that’s a pie — or Grand Cru? — in the sky dream. And you’ve probably noticed that it’s self-serving for an importer and online retailer of non-U.S. wines. But it’s a wish list, as I said, and large-scale to meet the scope of the impacts of Covid-19 on the wine industry. Who would have imagined even a year ago we’d be in the situation we’re in now, let alone back in the 1930s when state alcohol policies were codified? Short of replacing the constitution’s 21st amendment that repealed prohibition with one that forbids states from interfering with interstate commerce regarding alcohol, these are the kinds of actions that could twist the arms of state governments and get a better alcohol regulatory system overall.
And then we’ll still need better global warming policies.