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March 11, 1998

Strange but True Tales From the Annals of Drinking Laws

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    In Chicago, it's now OK to feed wine to a dog. Or so one must assume, as a city law that banned serving Champagne to Skippy has been repealed. There is no way of telling how the dogs feel about this, but among connoisseurs of ludicrous wine legislation, the dog law will be missed.

    Not that there is any shortage of laws designed to inconvenience wine drinkers. Around the country, hundreds of state and local laws, ghosts of Prohibition, make buying and selling wine, spirits and beer far more complicated than it should be.

    For example, New York state bans the sale of wine in grocery stores, to keep it out of the hands of minors. Or so we are told.

    Yet, beer is sold in grocery stores, in full view of impressionable youngsters -- and only in grocery stores. Every day, hundreds of out-of-state visitors are surprised to hear clerks in New York liquor stores say, "We're not allowed to sell beer."

    New York is one of 15 states that ban the sale of wine in grocery stores outright. In Minnesota, however, only grocers in the three largest cities sell wine; Rhode Island puts limits on wine sales in towns with 10,000 or fewer residents, plus Newport.

    Once credit cards were banned in liquor stores and wine shops, but now Arkansas is the only state where they are not allowed. In New York, you can use a credit card to buy wine, but only if you show up at the store in person. In Alabama, it's illegal to buy any alcoholic beverages by telephone, fax or e-mail.

    Let's say you are a wine connoisseur and you've decided to sell your collection of rare wines to another collector. Don't even try it in New York, or in most other states. Wine must be sold through a licensed retailer. Naturally, there is a busy and lucrative trade in illicit wine sales.

    It's the same with wine auctions in New York. They were banned for years until an arrangement was made that puts the retailers in charge. Any wine purchased at an auction in New York must be cleared through a licensed retailer, who adds his fee to the cost.

    In states where wine prices are regulated, a retailer can't give away even a cheap corkscrew. Such premiums are seen as a reduction in the price of the wine, though in fact the consumer pays the full amount. On the same principle, Arkansas bans that old saloon standby, the free lunch. Should a Little Rock barkeep so much as offer a customer a ham sandwich, he risks a $100 fine and 30 days in the county jail.

    In Utah, a restaurateur takes similar chances in offering a customer a wine list. If the patron asks for the list, no problem, but offering it unbidden is looking for trouble with the law. So is serving a second glass of wine to someone who hasn't finished the first.

    Most of these outlandish or silly rules date from just after Prohibition's repeal, when they were meant as concessions to the prohibitionists, who were still active at the time. Originally, these laws dealt with the moral aspects of drinking: banning sales of it on Sundays, for example, and seeing that taverns were not established anywhere near a church.

    In recent years, laws against wine and liquor have taken on a more protectionist role. The controversy over direct shipments from California wineries to consumers around the country is a case in point. Direct shipment of wine into New York state is banned, ostensibly because minors might buy it, using phony identification and a parent's credit card.

    In fact, this issue has little to do with concern for minors and much to do with the state's well-organized wine and liquor distributors, the industry's middlemen, who lose income on every direct sale. Pressed by distributors, several states have made direct shipment a felony.

    The Wine Institute, which represents most of the California wineries, works to abolish anti-wine laws and to head off new ones.

    "They range from the unnecessary to the absurd, but they effectively rob the American consumer of economic rights and freedom of choice regarding wine," said John DeLuca, president of the institute.

    Not surprisingly, the institute is not reluctant to point out some of the laws its sees as most restrictive. Like the Colorado law requiring wine to be sold in containers no smaller than 24 ounces and spirits in containers no smaller than a fifth of a gallon. What this does is prevent the average drinking man from slipping a pint of his favorite into his jacket or back pocket. It also means that splits of Champagne and half-bottles of wine are illegal.

    At the same time, Colorado decrees that nothing can be stored in hotel mini-bars but miniatures; no cans of beer, no half-bottles of wine. Half the law says "nothing too small," and half says "nothing too large."

    In Florida, wine can't be sold in a container larger than a gallon. In Kentucky, where some counties are dry and some are not, it's illegal to take alcoholic beverages into a dry county but OK to take them out, so long as they are in containers no smaller than three gallons. Presumably, this is for whisky distillers who happen to be based in dry counties.

    Probably the most egregious government encroachment on America's drinking habits is the controlled state. In 18 states, plus Montgomery County, Md., sales of wine and spirits are controlled by a state-run monopoly. The largest of these states is Pennsylvania. Over the years Pennsylvania governors have sworn to rid the state of this uncompetitive relic. None have been able to overcome the unions of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's employees.

    Pennsylvania wine drinkers vote with their feet or, more accurately, with their cars. Liquor store owners in neighboring states estimate that more than one-third of their fine-wine customers come from Pennsylvania.

    Mark Squires, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and puts out a wine magazine on the World Wide Web, estimates that wine enthusiasts in Pennsylvania probably buy only 20-30 percent of their wine in the state. The other 70-80 percent they buy across the Delaware River in New Jersey, where selections are greater, clerks more knowledgeable and prices 10-15 percent lower.

    One thriving Camden, N.J., retailer said of the Pennsylvania liquor bureaucrats, "I bless them every day."

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