Sat 28 Jun 2008
I have lived in Memphis for most of my life, but I usually don’t think of myself as living in Tennessee, except at election time. I mean, it’s such a long state, and West Tennessee, where Memphis occupies the far southwest corner, is the most liberal section of the state; there are also Middle and East Tennessee. On the other hand, to read the letters to the editor of the newspaper where I work and especially to read the comments on the paper’s website, you would think that Memphis is about as liberal as Myanmar. When I travel and people ask me if I’m from Tennessee, my first impulse is to say, “No, not me,” but then I catch myself and say, “Uh, yeah, but I live in Memphis.”
These ruminations are prelude to offering some facts about selling and buying and obtaining wine in Tennessee, whose nickname is the Volunteer State.
Now, Tennessee is a felony state, which means that it’s a felony to ship wine to an individual inside the state; the penalty goes against the shipper, so a winery could lose its license to do business in Tennessee. Last spring, the Tennessee state legislature, for the umpteenth time, voted down proposals that would have allowed grocery stores sales of wine and shipping of wine to consumers in the state without going through a wholesale distributor. It’s the same old story: The lobbying efforts of the retail and wholesale associations and the state’s fundamentalist religious element defeat these bills every time, though since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that states could not allow wineries in-state to sell directly to consumers if they didn’t allow out-of-state wineries the same right, if don’t see how that notion can stand much longer.
Each county and municipality in Tennessee can decide, by vote, whether it will be “wet” or “dry” or in what degree. Memphis did not get liquor-by-the-drink until 1972; people brown-bagged their bourbon and paid for set-ups. Some entire counties are dry; some towns allow certain alcoholic beverages to be sold and not others. It’s a puritanical patchwork designed to diminish the simple (and moderate) pleasure of consuming alcoholic beverages.
While wine and liquor stores in other states are allowed to sell wine glasses and cork-screws, may hold wine tastings in the stores and can even sell gourmet food items and other comestibles, none of these are allowed in Tennessee. Think of that: In Tennessee, a wine store cannot hold an event that brings in a winemaker or producer to introduce new products to customers. The motivation seems to be to allow as little contact as possible between those who make the wine and those who sell the wine.
An example of this retrograde philosophy occurred recently when a winery in California wanted to send me some samples. “No problem,” I said, “I’ve been getting samples delivered to me for many years.” “Yeah,” said the winery, “but Tennessee is a felony state, we don’t want to take a chance. How about if we send it to the wholesaler?” “Well,” I said, “that’s OK, but I may not see the wine for six months, or I might never see it. Wholesalers get lots of wine all the time, and they don’t necessarily look at who the box is addressed to or in care of.”
I thought perhaps the winery could ship the samples, in my name, in care of a local retail store, but to make sure, I called the owner of a store in my neighborhood and asked: “Can you accept a box of wine for me in care of your store?”
“No can do, F.K.,” said the owner. “That’s against the law in Tennessee. The ABC wants to keep contact between suppliers and stores to a minimum. So I can’t call a winery and ask to have some samples sent to the store. And that means that we only get to try wines that the wholesalers bring us, we can’t ask the wholesalers to bring in wine we’ve sampled here. We,re trying to get the law changed.”
That particular situation may be a minor annoyance, but it fits an age-old pattern of a seemingly paternalistic government making matters as difficult as possible for adults to enjoy alcoholic beverages that are legal to sell and consume and, in fact, to make the selling of those legal adult beverages as difficult as possible.
Did you know that in New York City, wine and liquor stores can be open on Sunday if they choose? Holy moly, what blasphemy, allowing alcoholic beverages to be sold on the Sabbath! New York certainly lives up to its reputation as the New World’s center of sin and decadence!