Ken Starr to Lead New All-Star Wine Legal Team


No one likes to be left out. But that’s exactly what’s been happening to wine retailers since last year’s Supreme Court decision that has prompted a wave of new wine laws across the country. In every new law that has address direct to consumer sales since the Granholm V. Heald Supreme Court case, retailers have been either dismissed or were not even at the bargaining table. That’s about to change.

The newly formed Specialty Wine Retailers Association has put together what can only be called an "All Star Team" to help push their attempt to agenda of getting retailers included in laws that open states up to direct-to-consumer sales.

Leslie Berglund, President of the SWRA, revealed to FERMENTATION today  that both Ken Starr, former Independent Counsel, and Kathleen Sullivan, Dean of the Stanford Law School, are crafting the legal strategy that will hopefully lead to retailers being able to lawfully ship wine to consumers in states across the country. Starr and Sullivan were instrumental in the Supreme Court victory last year.

"They are helping to craft our (SWRA) legal strategy in the same way they helped in last year’s legal battles," Berglund said.

In addition, Tracy Geneson, who headed up litigation at the Coalition for Free Trade, the organization that helped bring a number of lawsuits against states, has come on board as SWRA head of litigation. John Hinman of Hinman and Carmichael, the best known and highly respected wine attorney based in San Francisco, has also joined SWRA as Chief Counsel.

It’s an impressive team, to say the least.

Retailers find themselves in their current situation for a number of reason. As Berglund pointed out, most retailers did not know one another so when the direct shipping battles started up a decade ago they had no organization prepared to represent their interest.

"The only time we got to know each other is when one retailer bought the other," Berglund explains. "But as retailers became more and more effected by these decisions, we’ve found ourselves in need of a voice. Too often there simply wasn’t an organization representing us at the negotiations that led to new laws opening up states to direct sales."

The end result was that retailers were horse traded away in negotiations as wineries and wholesalers fought it out.

Currently, SWRA is crafting a national legal strategy that includes legislative efforts. However, they are preparing to fight a litigation battle also. At the same time they are educating consumers that their ability to obtain fine wine can be severely restricted if retailers are not included in legislation that allows direct shipping to consumers.

"We are currently making a strong push in Illinois where we just sent over 56,000 email alerts to consumers to enlist them in the effort to open up Illinois to direct shipping to consumers," Berglund said. "Consumer education and activism will be a huge part of our efforts. If they don’t get behind our efforts many are going to wake up and find they can no longer get the wine they’ve been used to buying and have shipped to them for years."

It is about time that retailers organized on this issue. For too long the retail wine industry has been split over direct shipping between those who saw it as a threat to their business and those such as, K&L Wine Merchants, Winebid and other progressive retailers that saw the advent of the Internet and direct shipping as the centerpiece of a new way of doing business. Yet this split among retailers made it difficult for them to organize.

We’ll be following the Specialty Wine Retailers Association closely to see how they choose to get in the game. However, this much is clear: Their success will mean greater access to wines of all types for consumers across the country.

5 Responses

  1. Mark (Uncorked in Ohio) - March 20, 2006

    Good heavens! Do you suppose this legal “dream team” is working pro bono, or perhaps out the the goodness of their hearts?

  2. wineguy - March 20, 2006

    Maybe they are doing it in exchange for wine…

  3. St.Vini - March 21, 2006

    Mark, I don’t get your comment. While I have no love for lawyers or the legal profession, I wonder – do you work for free?

  4. harrymac - March 21, 2006

    John Hinman may not work for free….but he works with a passion often unheard of in the industry. One of his other clients committed to revolutionalizing the industry is Inertia Beverage Group with their REthink Wine Trade initiative. Attorneys may not work pro bono but the best ones are not shy of trying to change the world of wine….and that’s a fact.

  5. tom merle - March 23, 2006

    They’ve raised beaucoup bucks (seven figures), so they intend to play to win, and they had better. Right now they’re all breaking the law and it won’t be long until WineBid, K&L etc. will get cease and desist letters then the carriers will be instructed not to knowingly ship their wines. The boilerplate language about title passing to the buyer etc. is bullshit, of course, and would never hold up if challenged. Besides consumers can’t ship to themselves, right Tom?

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