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Saturday, 18 October 2008 20:00

Arrogance. It's hard to come up with a better word to describe the behavior of Wine.com.Wine.com logo

If you saw MichWine's top story, you know they've unilaterally and publicly decided to stick their thumb in the eye of Federal Judge Denise Page Hood and start shipping wine into Michigan.

The Wine.com folks aren't naive on the subject of shipping. Last holiday season, they ran a private "sting" operation against 29 online competitors they accused of breaking shipping laws -- and turned them in to state authorities. This vigilante behavior earned condemnation by both consumer wine writers and those in the industry. A number of people even called for a customer boycott against Wine.com.

Now they seem to have flipped 180 degrees, and decided their interests lie in becoming scofflaws themselves.

But their current approach -- much as I disagree with it -- stems from a legitimate frustration they share with Michigan consumers over the antiquated, protectionist laws that govern wine sales. Far more than Wine.com, those laws deserve our antipathy -- and efforts for change.

Why? Thanks to a Prohibition-era legal anachronism, in the year 2008 I can go online and legally purchase anything from a new car to bullets for a .357 Magnum --  but not a bottle of wine from a store in Illinois.

That's because Michigan's wine laws protect and enrich a single powerful group: the distribution monopoly known as the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (MBWWA). This would be the same MBWWA whose members -- surprise! -- donate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the campaign chests and private PAC's of our state's politicians.

As MBWWA Executive Director Mike Lashbrook recently told the Wine Spectator, their attitude toward Michigan consumers boils down to this: We think our wine selection is pretty good. If we don't sell something, you don't need it -- and you shouldn't have a legal way to get it.

Yet Lashbrook whines in the same article that countless Michigan wine consumers simply ignore the law to order wines they can't find locally from out-of-state retailers. Retailers like Wine.com.

You gotta wonder if this poor guy feels any irony (or pain) straddling both sides of the fence simultaneously: We bring in all the wines that Michigan needs. And what about all those people whose actions prove otherwise? They're just a bunch of lawbreakers.

That rises to a level of arrogance -- no, let's call it hubris -- in a totally different league from the folks at Wine.com.

And it hurts our state. As during Prohibition, our failure to appropriately regulate and tax interstate wine shipment costs Michigan untold dollars in licensing fees and tax revenues that our state can't afford to lose. Not to mention the lost respect for a "public be damned" lawmaking process that created the current situation and leaves it in place.

Or, as the Grand Rapids Press editorialized last week:

What public purpose is being served by preventing adults from buying wine from their favorite wine retailer outside Michigan, provided they pay any required sales tax? The Internet, in particular, has made shopping across state and even national borders for all sorts of goods easier and more efficient. There is no reason to exclude wine from out-of-state retailers from the list of goods available to Michigan consumers.

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KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.