Wine and Testimony
Testifying in front of a government body is frustrating, for a number of reasons. The primary source of frustration, however, is the inability to stand up in the midst of of a hearing and shout, "Bullshit!"
It's not so much an inability as it is a matter of decorum and one's desire to see how the hearing ends. I stayed until the end of a hearing last Friday on HB 716, a bill that if made into law would provide Marylanders the opportunity to purchase and have shipped to them wine from wineries and retailers inside or outside of Maryland. In other words, I suppressed my desire to stand and shout, "Bullshit", as opponents of direct shipping—both wine industry members and legislators—went about defiling logic and fact in their rush to keep consumers from accessing the wines they want.
I was in Annapolis, Maryland to testify in favor of HB 716 on behalf of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association. I was joined by local winery owners, farmers, retailers, sommeliers, consumers (Lots of consumers) and members of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws.
Testifying in front of a legislative committee is pretty much the same in Annapolis, Maryland as it is in Sacramento, California and Springfield, Illinois and Salem, Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee and Olympia Washington. It is a stilted affair. One signs up to speak on a particular bill being heard that session. One waits for their name to be called. One then advances to a simple, rectangular table with microphones that faces a semicircle of legislators. When it's apparent they are ready for your testimony by staring at you with nearly dead eyes you commence with, "Mr./Madame Chairman and Committee members, thank you for…"
When I reached the rectangular desk with the microphone in Annapolis, however, I noticed that the committee members' eyes were deader than usual. I also noticed one particularly well-aged yet pretty female member of the committee to the left trying, but failing, to disguise her tendency to nod off. I started with a joke involving my mother, Boone's Farm Strawberry wine and a particular member of the committee. I got a laugh and the older committee member to my left woke up.
In nearly every legislative hearing I've ever been to or testified at, the minds of the committee members, who will eventually vote to pass or not pass the bill on to the full House or Senate, have already been made up on the matter. There is the possibility to change minds. And there is the occasional legislator who hasn't yet made up their mind either due to laziness, disinterest or genuine respect. We testify nonetheless because we know it's important that the various constituencies and stakeholders have their views aired. In the case of the Maryland bill to allow direct to consumer shipping, I was there because it is important for the nation's progressive wine retailers to have their view heard.
I spent three minutes explaining to the members of the Economic Matters Committee of the House of Delegates exactly what out-of-state wine retailers would do if HB 716 became law: pay for a permit, faithfully remit taxes, report to the Comptroller on a monthly basis, submit themselves to the legal jurisdiction of the State of Maryland, and assure that common carriers checked IDs before any wine is delivered.
In those three minutes I made a point of looking each committee member in the eye. However, I don't think the older lady to my left saw me looking at her. My testimony was followed by questions from committee members, the part of the process I like most, but almost never changes minds.
Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws have been driving forward this issue of direct shipping in Maryland. Adam Borden, it's executive director, has been relentless and built the organization into a 25,000 person-strong collection of wine and free-trade lovers. The result was a significant turnout at the hearing. Upwards of 40 individuals signed up to testify with proponents outnumbering opponents of direct shipping by at least 2-1. Everyone eventually went to the podium and did their three minutes. Not everyone got questions, but the committee members did muster the occasional question for a speaker.
The one legislator who decided to try to counter my testimony was a good looking gentleman in his late 30's who, like most legislators, asks questions in order to make a point, not to illicit more information upon which to make a decision. What this tall, young politicians wanted to know of me was how I could claim that there would be enough shipping into the state to generate significant tax revenue, but that these shipments would not take food off the table of local retailers who would be hurt by the competition?
What I'm sure he heard me explain, but didn't care about, was my belief that Marylanders were probably just as smart as wine consumers in other states where they are unlikely to pay substantial shipping charges on wine they could otherwise obtain locally.
In response to his query, I repeated my contention about the intellect and reason of the average wine lover Marylander. He was not satisfied with my response: "I don't' drink wine but I can't believe they'll be buying wine both on-line and at local stores."
This forced me to explain my own proclivity for Austrian Riesling, how I can't find much of it in Sonoma, how I buy it on-line, yet how I often patronize local grocery stores as well as wine stores to procure other wines.
"Well, I think you must like wine more than most people," he replied.
I didn't have a chance to tell him about my recent exploration of spirits and cocktail mixing. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. He successfully communicated his disinterest in understanding the issue and was also successful in communicating to his patrons in the audience who opposed direct shipping that he had done his duty to take their side.
The Annapolis hearing lasted four hours. I sat through it all even though I'd heard it all before.
I learned that allowing direct shipment of wine would be "catastrophic" for the youth of Maryland who would use the sales channel to obtain alcohol then likely go kill themselves or others in a car accident. "BULLSHIT," I didn't yell.
I learned that out-of-state retailers can not be trusted to pay Maryland sales taxes. "BULLSHIT," I didn't yell.
I learned that 1000s of Marylanders would lose their jobs if direct shipping was allowed. "BULLSHIT," I didn't yell, again.
When all the yelling was done not getting started, the hearing ended, the committee chair thanked everyone for their input and announced the bill was unlikely to pass this year. There was no straw vote among committee members. There was no real vote of committee members. There was merely an announcement that the SUB-committee of the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates would review the bill next.
When that happens there will also be no yelling of "BULLSHIT" at all. Rather, the Alcohol Subcommittee will announce they don't' support the bill and it will die there.
The process by which political influence is purchased and wielded includes campaign contributions, using contributions to gain access to politicians, communicating during that access what you want the recipie
nt of campaign contributions to do, and giving them talking points for doing it without making a complete fool of themselves. The committee hearing is where it really all pays off. This is where wine shipping is killed and where distributors see their return on investment.
The more I attend and testify at these hearings and the more I see the same thing happen the more I start to believe that standing up and yelling "Bullshit" early on may not be a bad idea. It would have the benefit of getting me kicked out of a 4 hour long hearing with a predictable ending and have the benefit of actually being the truth.