Editorials

Wholesalers acting like old-time moonshiners

By the Herald editorial staff

It was a truism in the Old South and many places beyond:

"The more moonshiners that live in a particular county, the more likely that county will vote 'dry.'"

As reported by Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers, something very like that is under way again.

The moonshiners' logic is unimpeachable. To sell moonshine, you need a customer base, and that base will be made up of people who can't buy it legally.

So it is in the moonshiners' interest to have Prohibition -- everywhere.

(There always will be a few titanium-stomached consumers who actually prefer moonshine to tax-paid liquor, of course.)

That moonshiners' logic applies to the modified Prohibition movement that Doyle wrote about.

Only these days it's beer wholesalers who want strong laws to regulate interstate wine sales for the simple reason that if wineries are prohibited from shipping directly to customers, the wholesalers will sell more beer -- and more wine, if they carry that too.

They have a powerful lobby and lots of money. So they're trying to get Congress to pass legislation that would make it easy on wholesalers who handle the products of big wineries and beer companies to grab a significantly bigger share of the market.

Here's what the chief marketer of the wholesalers had to say (don't laugh):

"With (the bill), Congress is taking an important step toward ending the erosion of the states' ability to regulate alcohol," said Craig Purser, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

Sure it is. And certainly more regulation -- of their competitors -- is exactly what the wholesalers want.

They want it on a national level, but the impact would be local.

Perhaps a handful of major wineries won't be hurt. But the smaller ones, the ones that make every grape crush and barrel tasting exciting, would no longer be able to ship wines to individual customers who live far away.

"It really threatens the progress that's been made on direct shipping of wine," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., told McClatchy. "It puts into jeopardy all of the work we've done."

Radanovich is a former winemaker who co-chairs the 250-member Congressional Wine Caucus. The caucus supports direct shipping.

It's said that the legislation, introduced by Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., is a weak shot that's been tried before and won't do any better this time.

Delahunt is a lame duck, and the Democratic leadership in both houses opposes the bill. He does have 107 co-signers, thanks at least in part, we suspect, to the energetic efforts of the wholesalers' lobbyists.

So far, the Senate is having none of it.

The renewed House activity springs from a U.S. Supreme Court decision -- Granholm v. Heald -- that struck down laws banning out-of-state direct shipments while permitting consumers to receive shipments from in-state wineries.

The court said those restrictive state laws violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which prohibits states from erecting barriers against one another.

It was a good decision. Wineries within a few miles of wherever you're sitting in the Mid-Columbia got a business break and a better chance of making it in a competitive market because of it.

It seems the wholesalers' bill and its sponsors in Congress may be headed where the moonshiners live.

That is, they're going south.

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