The Snake and the Winemakers

The purchase of an elected official is hardly uncommon in America. There is, in fact, a long and distinguished history of graft that runs like a snake though the American era. Yet, one of the real accomplishments of the American culture is that this snake has not swallowed all political commerce. There remains a real, not feigned, expectation among voters of fair dealings when it comes to matters of public policy.

It is the American practice of expecting something more out of our elected officials that makes the rank and near-criminal attempt by the Michigan wholesalers to buy an anti-direct shipping bill and the snakish actions by their senator and champion in the senate that makes the Michigan wine battle so hard to watch.

In a certain act of discrimination against Michigan’s wineries and consumers, Senator Chris Ward called a very hasty committee meeting on the anti-direct shipping bill that he was carrying to the Senate on behalf of his benefactors, the Wholesalers. Opponents of the Bill were given no more than 24 hours to prepare for this surprise, then all invited to speak were told “there was no more time” when it came their turn. Ward made his point sharply, in essence saying: “I am going to fulfill my obligation to my campaign contributors, like it or not, fair or not, ethical or not.”

It is, I recognize, something of an heroic effort on Senator Ward’s part to attempt some other justification for his legislation beyond, “It’s what the wine wholesalers want.” No, in fact Ward has declared that it’s the children’s well being that motivated him to offer a bill that would put winemakers and grapegrowers in a difficult economic predicament and that would severely stifle commerce in the state while wholesalers alone benefit.

Ward explained the need to ban any and all shipment of wine to consumers by saying, "The shipping industry will not be strident enough to check IDs.”

Here,  here!! The good Senator was able to put up some sort of justification, regardless of the utter feebleness of the attempt.

Let’s be clear about something Senator Ward knows, the Michigan wholesalers know, and anyone involved in the issue of shipping wine knows: There is no evidence existing anywhere in America that shows minors are using the Internet in any slightly alarming way to obtain booze. No study showing this has been published. No government alcohol boards have had any complaints lodged. No testimony has been heard that offered up examples of the problem.

Nevertheless, Senator Ward went on to lie at the committee hearing when he claimed his bill was necessary because without it: ““Lawmakers are putting the health of children and the community at risk,”

Yet this brings us back the sad reality: Senator Ward has sold his vote and influnce to the wholesalers for about $12,000.

When asked by a writer for the Detroit Free Press about his seeming slavishness in the employ of wholesalers, the writer explained “Ward refused to discuss the ethics of all this.”

Of course he did. The selling of votes and influence is so obvious it could stand no discussion.

I was talking to one of Michigan’s best wine writers the other day and she asked me, “Why do you care about this, Tom.”

It made me think. I realized that my preoccupation with direct shipping legislation in a state across the country from my own is less about allowing small, family owned winemakers the chance to compete, less about my own feelings for wine as one of it’s true geeks, and less about the fundamental idea that monopolies hinder progress and economic growth.

What truly gets me concerned about this issue is that it strikes at the central issue of our time: Fixing the responsiveness of government to the governed. The process in America of deciding policy, whether it be foreign policy, inter-state relations, tax policy, policy on the relationship between minority and majority rights, or nearly any other decision we make in the public sphere, is becoming less and less a matter of accounting for the voice of the people.  The direct shipping issue and the way it is decided on the state level goes even beyond the bureaucratic and administrative barriers that have been plopped down between citizens and the source of action. The pure purchasing of laws that represents the situation in Michigan is the deepest sort of handicap to government responsiveness. It removes any chance of any response after the money has changed hands.

On matters at hand, there is not more at stake when a matter of policy is decided by money rather than voices. It’s simply another way of governing. It’s called a Profitocracy: Those who make the most profit make the rules. No doubt this system of governing is more efficient than real representative democracy and is likely to remain more efficient no matter how clean politicians were goaded into becoming and no matter what changes were made in the administration of government and the election of public officials. While we don’t live quite yet in a Profitocracy, the kind of bare-knuckled corruption we see in Michigan encourages this system of government.

Senator Ward still must contend with a PRO direct shipping bill that will compete with his “For-the-low-low-price-of…” type of bill. There is the possibility too that the Michigan press will continue what has been a remarkable display of real reporting on this issue as well as superb editorializing against Ward’s corruption, and this will help alert Michigan residents to the “government as gratuity” on display in their state.

The more this situation is exposed, the more likely Michigan’s legislators will be responsive to the people of the state as well as to the notion of fairness. WineCam, a group of Michigan consumers has also taken up the fight, working to expose the public and government officials to both the merits of direct shipping and to the Wholesalers plan to buy a state body.

While there is little those outside Michigan can do to influence the course of events in that state, I do think there is a policy California’s vintners can adopt toward Michigan and other states where wine shipping might be threatened. The California wineries do have a great deal to gain by seeing states opened to free commerce. California wineries should support efforts to fight the wholesalers and Chris Ward. They should send money. Thousands of dollars should be sent, from individual wineries as well as winery associations.

After we talked about the tough fight that lies ahead of the likes of WineCam, supporters of direct shipping in the Michigan legislature and Michigan’s wineries, and after only giving a brief and unthoughtful response to her question as to why I cared about the direct shipping issue, discussion with the Michigan wine writer swerved toward the question of drinking wine.

She mentioned what I had heard others say quite often over the past few months: “You really need to taste these new Michigan wines, Tom. Many are really beautiful. Particularly the Rieslings.”

How is it that a single very small group of business people and a weak willed set of legislators could threaten an entire industry for the sake of power and profit? And consider that those this cabal threatens are in the very same business as they: providing good wine to consumers. I have put orders in for some Michigan wine. I’ve found a way to obtain some Rieslings. It seems like the least wine lovers around the country can do given the circumstances.


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