Release the Grapes

Michael Nagrant / 08.20.07

I love champagne like fat kids love cake. Of course I’m a fat kid and I love cake, too. But the state legislature isn’t banning the out-of-state retail sales of cake. On August 7, both houses of the Illinois legislature passed bill HB429, which is supposed to reconcile state law with a Supreme Court ruling that requires states to treat in-state and out-of-state wineries the same.

Under old laws, Illinois vineyards could sell up to 10,000 gallons of wine straight to consumers, while out-of-state vineyards only two cases a year. The new bill allows for both out-of-state wineries and in-state wineries to sell up to twelve cases directly to consumers. Small Illinois wineries are now also allowed to bypass Illinois’ distribution system and sell a portion of their wine directly to restaurants and retailers, while larger Illinois wineries will have to sell most of their production through traditional distribution. Finally, the bill bans direct sales to consumers from out-of-state retailers.

The first two provisions of the bill shouldn’t impact most consumers. Unless you’re North Shore old money, it’s unlikely you’re buying twelve cases of wine from any single vineyard. The second provision adding the distribution middle man might raise the prices on bottles of wine from larger Illinois wineries, but Illinois isn’t Napa—hell, it isn’t even Michigan, which is making some extraordinary wines right now (Brys Estate in particular). Consumers would probably be better off spending their money elsewhere anyway.

Still, I disagree with the first two provisions. While their passage is lauded with rhetoric about promoting equitability between vineyards, the truth is this law is really about a naked protectionist power grab by Illinois’ distributors. Distributors could care less about the marginal businesses of the small wineries, but you can bet they’ve been flashing their grinning wolf teeth and salivating at the possibility of snagging the high-volume direct-sale business from the larger wineries.

If there’s any doubt about the distributor’s hand in these provisions, just follow the paper trail. According to online campaign finance statements, the bill’s primary house sponsor Edward Acevedo received $7,500 in political contributions from the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois (ABDI) in the last year. In fact, my cursory non-scientific glance of a years worth of campaign-finance statements showed at least $30,000 in contributions from ABDI to sponsors of the bills.

As anyone who reads this column knows, I love pork—just not the legislative kind. These new laws are forged in the same spirit that forced premium craft brews from Bell’s out of our city. Distributors are limiting our freedom of choice in order to protect their almighty dollar.

Consider the third provision, which limits retail purchases to in-state retailers. While Sam’s and Binny’s seem to have more bottles than the front lawn of a University of Illinois frat house on Saturday morning, they really only carry a small proportion of small producers, collectible vintages and artisan products.

Consider my champagne addiction. For centuries smug writers have compared flavor profiles of wine to wildflowers. As a landlocked urbanite, who’s likely trampled more elderberries and honeysuckle in Grant Park than ever smelled or identified them, I’ve found the easiest way to learn about wine is to grab a particular grape variety and drink as many examples of that grape as possible. My gateway to wine has always been champagne, and so I’ve geeked out pretty hard over the last five years, drinking as many bubbles as possible. In doing so, I’ve found some of my favorite bottles from out-of-state retailers.

In fact, as I write this, I’m staring at a bottle of 1985 Rene Collard Brut Rose I purchased last year from California merchant K & L. It’s one of my favorite sparkling roses ever. Until 2003, renowned artisan winemaker Collard didn’t export his wines to the United States. Through a personal meeting with K & L’s champagne buyer, Gary Westby, the semi-retired Collard was persuaded to part with some bottles from his personal cellar. Westby travels to the region every year, drinking with and establishing personal friendships to procure bubbly from the some of the smallest-quality producers around. The allotment he got from Collard wasn’t available anywhere, not even at excellent local specialty retailer Hart Davis Hart. Under the new laws, unless I flew out to France and hunkered down with Collard myself, I probably never would have tasted this bottle.

Even if you have no interest in geeking out on small-production wines, by eliminating out-of-state sales, state retailers will now have a geographical monopoly, and there’s no reason they can’t set prices so high you’ll be shelling out ten clams for your two-buck Chuck.

Governor Rod Blagojevich still has to sign the measure into law, which is likely since it passed by large margins in both houses. Not to mention he received $2,000 from the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association PAC last year, an advocate for Illinois liquor retailers. So, there’s still time to contact your local legislator and the governor. Check out for more information. In the meantime, let’s hope the aldermen don’t get around to that trans fat ban, or you might be reading a lot about my cake proclivities soon.

This article first appeared in Newcity in a slightly different form.