Nanny state of the week: No sipping and selling for Alabama winemakers

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Imagine, if you will, the following scene.

You’re at a wine festival along the Gulf coast of Alabama – OK, sure it’s not the same as doing a wine tasting in Napa Valley, but just go with it – sampling sips of wine from more than a dozen of the state’s small wineries. The crimson tide is rolling across your palette and you’ve just got to take some of that fine vintage home with you to share with the family.

Here’s how that conversation might go:

“Can I buy a couple bottles of that Saban sauvignon?”

“Sure. I’d love to sell it to you, but you’ll have to drive across the state to get it.”

Your wine tasting just became a wine adventure because of Alabama state law, which forbids wineries from offering tastings of their products in the same location where those products are for sale.

That means wineries can sell their products on their own premises, but can’t offer free tastings to curious visitors. And they can take their wares to events like the Orange Beach Wine Festival, but they can’t sell the products there.

The Alabama Wine Trail, a group of 14 wineries that have joined together in the hopes of changing this nonsensical law, say the rules keep small wineries from being able to compete with larger ones.

“Most people who taste want to buy,” Jahn Coppey told the Associated Press. “They don’t want to have to be sent to a store.”

Coppey owns the Willis Creek Winery, one of the members of the Alabama Wine Trail. The group believes that law hinders the ability of wine producers to get their products in stores and out before the public.

They might have some hope that things will change. The Alabama legislature this session is considering a series of bills that would reform decades-old liquor regulations, including the prohibition on tasting and selling at the same location.  Wineries say they would be willing to pay for an additional license to do tastings — which means they are literally offering to give the state more money, if only they were allowed to do it.

Those regulations date to the immediate aftermath of Prohibition. They were created along with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in 1937, and changing them is not easy. The ABC Board says it does not have a dog in the fight, but there are groups that prefer keeping these kinds of rules on the books.

“Alcohol is an addictive and mind-altering drug,” said Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, a group that is opposing liquor reform in Alabama. “It destroys homes, it destroys families.”

He’s not wrong, necessarily. Alcohol does contribute to social ills — but then, so do cars, and you can take a test drive and buy a new one at the same dealership.

And making it easier for Alabamians to buy a bottle of wine from a small winery is not going to increase alcohol consumption by any significant measure. The people who are going to taste wine at the Orange Beach Wine Festival and then buy a bottle likely are not the same people who have let the ravages of alcoholism destroy their homes and families.

Easing those rules will, in fact, make it easier for those wineries to turn a profit, and that’s a good thing for Alabama families.

Nannies will always be out there, annoying but ultimately harmless. People like Godfrey are entitled to their point of view, but they are not entitled to use the levers of government power to enforce that point of view, at the expense of good economic policy and common sense.

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This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org

Eric Boehm is the national regulatory reporter for Watchdog.org. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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