American Wine Laws: Time for a Change?

No food for sale in this NYC Trader Joes. No wine for sale at the Trader Joes next door.

Only in America? You can't buy food at this NYC Trader Joe's wine store. And you can't buy wine at the Trader Joe's next door.

A European visitor pulled me aside recently to complain about American wine laws, which considerably restrict the what, where and how of wine sales and consumption compared to more relaxed European practices.

“I thought there was separation of Church and State in America,” he said, showing that he hadn’t forgotten what he learned in Civics class years ago as a high school exchange student in Cleveland. He put the blame for America’s wine parochialism squarely on the influence of conservative religious groups.

Church and State vs. Special Interests

Religious groups are political powerful, I told him, and they no doubt have had some influence on the development of America’s wine laws. But that’s not the reason the laws don’t change, I said. It is the interests of those who gain from the current set up. He wasn’t convinced. He seemed to think that a moral explanation was inherently more persuasive (or more American?) than an economic one. But I still think I’m right.

My explanation — that economic forces organize around any set of regulations, become entrenched and use their political and economic clout to prevent change — has a good economic pedigree. It is the theory of structural rigidities developed by Mancur Olson in his two classic books, The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Decline of Nations.

Olson’s theory is elegantly simply. Restrictive economic arrangements benefit a small number of actors a great deal, so they have a strong incentive to organize and fight change. Eliminating the restrictions benefits a larger but widely diffused set of actors who have correspondingly smaller individual incentive to take action.

Even though the collective gain from liberalizing arrangements is likely to exceed the collective loss, the concentrated established interests have more of an incentive to influence legislators and regulators than the general public. This is why regulations, once enacted, are difficult to change. Public gain cannot seem to trump concentrated private interests.

Olson developed this theory in The Logic of Collective Action and used it in The Rise and Decline to explain why rich, stable economies sometimes experience slower growth rates. Stability allows interests to become entrenched and structural rigidities to solidify. Change becomes more and more difficult and potential collective gains from innovation are systematically sacrificed on the altar of vested interest.

Every once in a while, Olson argued, advanced nations need something that will shake things up and weaken the grip of special interests. Then all sorts of change becomes possible.

A Loaf of Bread But No Jug of Wine

An article by Graham Rayman in the August 11, 2009 Village Voice provides evidence to support this theory. New York is one of 15 US states where it is illegal to purchase wine or beer in a supermarket (and you can’t buy bread or cheese in a NY wine shop, either). It isn’t so much separation of Church and State as the division of  Wine and Cheese. Supermarkets can sell wine, beer and spirits as provided by the law, and some do this, but they must have separate stores with separate entrances, checkout stands and so forth.

Two doors, two lines, two sets of store staff. Greater legal control alcohol sales is possible, I suppose, but at a considerable sacrifice in convenience.  It is probably not a surprise that wineries and wine enthusiasts would want to change this, but it isn’t an easy thing to do.

The Village Voice article explains how liquor store interests organized and lobbied the NY legislature to kill a recent bill that would have permitted supermarket sales. The main force behind the proposal was the state government’s need for revenue — the state projected that increased sales though supermarkets would have added to state tax coffers. The story focuses on the anti-reform lobby — it would be interesting to know more about than the author reports here about how supermarket chain and corporate wine producer interests reacted to the bill. But the point about the blocking power of small but concentrated interests is well made.

Shake It Up, Baby

Supermarkets are just one distribution vector for wine, of course, and New Yorkers have many competitive specialist stores to keep prices down and service up, so we don’t need to feel too sorry for them. But it does seem that the increased convenience of grocery store sales would help expand the wine market and promote wine as a lifestyle choice. It’s too bad the reform effort failed.

The inconvenience of wine buyers in the 15 supermarket-ban states is important, but the grip of special interests on wine regulations extends to other areas.The cumbersome three-tier distribution system and restrictions on inter-state wine shipments are two other areas where entrenched interests have successfully fought off liberalization efforts.The result is the restrictive system my European friend finds so difficult to understand.

If Mancur Olson is right, restrictive regulations will be difficult to change unless something happens to shake things up. Maybe the economic crisis, which has put every link in the wine value chain under stress, will ultimately provide just such an opportunity. Consumers, wine producers and even state tax departments all have something to gain from changing the system now.

We Will Sell No Wine [Reform] Before Its Time

I told my European friend not to hold his breath waiting for wine reforms to trickle up from grassroots wine enthusiasts. The real hope is that the big players will push for liberal reforms.

Personally, I pin my hopes on Costco, the largest single wine retailer. And I wonder if Wal-Mart will get involved now that it is selling wine in many stores (it even has its own version of a Two Buck wine called Oak Leaf). OK, Wal-Mart is a long shot, given its Arkansas roots, but these are unusual times — almost anything is possible.

The New York defeat is a definite setback (and the California plan to increase wine taxes is a step in the wrong direction) but maybe European-style wine market regulations are an idea whose time has finally come.

8/27/2009 Update

Interesting article in the New York Times about Whole Foods’ failed attempt to open a wine shop in New York City.

Whole Foods learned the hard way that opening a wine store in New York is not easy. The wine shop at its market in the Time Warner Center was closed by the state liquor authority because the shop was deemed part of the supermarket; state law bans selling wine in food stores. Then Whole Foods’s license request for a wine shop near its store in the Bowery was denied because of community opposition. But the company succeeded in starting a wine store in the same building as its newest store on the Upper West Side: it opened on Aug. 24, and the supermarket will open on Aug. 27.

Read the whole story at

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/dining/26whole.html?_r=1

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One response

  1. Truth be told, many of our current alcohol laws actually come from the repeal of prohibition and are much more influenced by the mob, and trying to prevent them from strong-arming customers and retailers than any religious groups. No doubt, many believers were behind the initial prohibition movement…along with battred wives, children, and anyone else sufferring from relationships with alcoholics.

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