Booze Brothers and preachers stop sale of wine online in Texas

The headline a recent edition of the Dallas Morning News read, “Wine bill is study in vintage politics.”

The article's reporters painted an intriguing political portrait of the struggle vintners and grape growers have in expanding wine markets.

Texas has a small wine industry and an enormous untapped consumer base for not only their wine, but California wine as well. Texas, like many other states, is not a big wine-drinking state, largely because most Texans are not familiar with wine or wine has a negative connotation for them.

Texas wineries and naturally California vintners want to change that and one way, they believe, is to allow Internet sales of wine. Legislation was introduced to allow on-line wine sales.

Standing in the way of that was a handful of liquor wholesalers, the beer industry and churches. Strange bedfellows? No, Texas politics.

The effort to block the Internet sale of wine was spearheaded by a 57-year-old liquor lobbyist named “Butch” Sparks and beer lobbyist, Mike McKinney. The pair is known as “the Booze Brothers” in the Texas' State Capitol where they roam marbled halls heralding the dangers of selling wine on the Internet — principally lost tax revenues and the dastardly possibility of minors buying liquor over the Internet.

Of course, there's the danger of lost revenue to the five liquor wholesalers in Texas which control 85 percent of retail wine sales in the state and pay Sparks.

The Wine Institute helped backed the efforts of Texas winery lobbyist Sharon Hull, but she was no match for the deep pockets of the Booze Brothers. Liquor industry executives and political action committees contributed more than $720,000 to Texas politicians over the past year.

When the bills reached committees, opponents were ready. Sparks never testified, however, a Church of Christ preacher cautioned that on-line wine sales would lead to teenage drinking. Beer lobbyist McKinney followed the preacher to the podium to oppose the same bill.

Texas agriculture commissioner Susan Combs, a fourth generation West Texas cattle rancher, joined the efforts of Texas vintners. She said it would be good for Texas agriculture, still a powerful political force in the Lone Star State.

The liquor lobby hired a high dollar media consulting firm that took the issue to the public, producing a mailer warning of the dire consequences of on-line wine sales.

The mailer chronicled the life of a young white boy selling lemonade at age five; throwing a newspaper in an upscale neighborhood at age 11 and at 14 holding a can beer and smoking a cigarette. A notation says he was “selling booze he bought on the Internet to his friends.”

Nasty enough? It went one step farther — and backfired. In the background of the fallen youngster was a young black man leaning against a graffiti-cover wall, suggesting booze had led the young white boy into bad company.

The chairman of the committee that regulates alcohol in Texas is black, and the racial overtones of the mailer made him livid.

The on-line wine sales bill languishing in committee suddenly took on new life. Supporters of on-line wine sales brokered a compromise in the wake of the liquor lobby blunder that would allow Texas wineries to sell wine on the Internet. However, the wine must be shipped to the nearest local retailer for pickup. Texans still cannot order wine from California or any other state off the Internet.

A victory for wine? Hardly. The Wine Institute and the fledgling Texas wine industry will be back next session, and the Booze Brothers will still be in the halls of the Texas State Capitol.

And, you guys who sell almond and table grapes complain about unfair tariffs in your overseas markets? Try selling wine in Texas.

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