Florida winemakers try to put squeeze on law
After a recent court decision opened up the market, the industry is looking for ways to protect itself.
By JONI JAMES
Published September 14, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Wine aficionados rejoiced last month when a federal judge in Tampa tossed out a Florida law that banned purchases from out-of-state wineries.
Now the Florida wine industry is fighting back.
Fearing a loss of business, the industry is pushing state lawmakers to pass a law that would circumvent the judge's decision.
Winemakers, distributors and sellers made their first public push Tuesday before a somewhat sympathetic House committee.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, say they oppose any new law designed to protect Florida's wine industry from competition.
"I think these efforts are natural on behalf of the impacted industries; they're trying to protect their sanctuaries," Bush said. "By and large I believe we should be tearing down sanctuaries rather than protecting them."
Floridians only recently won the right to legally order wine directly from out-of-state wineries.
Last month's ruling by U.S. District Judge James Whittemore was based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in December that said it was unconstitutional to treat wineries in other states differently.
Florida law gave in-state wineries the right to ship directly to consumers, but prohibited out-of-state wineries from doing so.
Given the judge's decision, Florida legislative leaders thought the 2006 session would be an appropriate time to review the state law, which also does not address the prevention of alcohol sales to minors on the Internet, or how to collect taxes from out-of-state wineries.
The subsequent discussion also has given the state's wine industry an opening to float its own proposals for dealing with the court ruling, including:
--Ban all wineries from shipping wine, as three states have done since the Supreme Court decision.
--Allow only wineries that produce fewer than 250,000 gallons annually, which would include all Florida wineries, to directly ship to consumers. While this would include the majority of wineries in California, it would exclude the big producers.
--Limit to four cases a year the amount of wine a consumer can order from out-of-state wineries, and require the consumer to register with the state before receiving a single bottle.
The suggestions brought sharp rebuke from Hunter Limbaugh, a lobbyist for the Wine Institute, a California consortium of wineries.
"If the reason we don't allow direct shipments is because it may wind up in the hands of underage drinkers, then we have to stop selling alcohol in 7-Elevens and liquor stores," said Limbaugh, prompting head nods from a couple of lawmakers. He argued a host of other states have dealt handily with both tax and sales to minors.
"We just want to pass a law that makes everyone happy," said lobbyist Don Tucker, a former House speaker hired by Southern Wine & Spirits of America, a Miami distributor with operations in 12 states.
Either way, Tuesday's discussion showed the difficulty of any challenge.
"Both sides have credible arguments," Tampa lawyer Richard Blau, chairman of the American Bar Association Committee on Alcoholic Beverage Practice, told the committee. "And there is nothing simple about alcohol regulation."
--Joni James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850 224-7263.
[Last modified September 14, 2005, 02:15:34]
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