Business

New Efforts Aim To Crack Down On Buying Alcohol Online, Sparking A Spirited Battle

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Question: what do Al Capone and the Internet have in common? Answer: An activity known as bootlegging. That’s if you believe Barry W. Mc Cahill, the executive director of AMERICANS FOR RESPONSIBLE ALCOHOL ACCESS. “Many wineries and breweries,” he says, “are using the Internet to illegally ship over $1 billion [annually] in bootleg alcohol-some of it directly to kids, with no questions asked.”nMcCahill’s point of view has supporters in high places. In March, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced Senate Bill 577, also known as the Twenty-First Amendment Enforcement Act, to give states the right to seek injunctions in federal court against these scofflaw direct-shippers.

But this is mainly (forgive me) old wine in a new bottle. Hatch’s bill wants to give more bite to existing laws, dating to 1913, that curtail the interstate shipment of spirits. Right now, all 50 states regulate direct interstate shipment of alcohol in some way, and 20 ban di rect shipments to consumers. You can view this battle as a kind of barroom brawl between the big commercial interests-the “irontriangle” of major producers, distributors, and retailers-and the smaller producers, who are fighting for shelf space and thus are seeking alternative ways to get their products to consumers.

On the side of the latter group is Seana Wagner, a spokesperson for FREE THE GRAPES!. FTG, a coalition of organizations that represents more than 1,000 wineries, is trying to work within-and augment-the current, three-tier system by encouraging its members to comply with the states that don’t allow direct shipment, and to pay all applicable state taxes. “ARAA isn’t concerned about kids’ getting alcohol,” argues Wagner. “It’s a front for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, who are concerned that their members are losing money to people like us. Small wineries and microbreweries may ship through 800-numbers and the Net without charging state sales taxes, because they can’t get distributed any other way. Few ship to states that expressly forbid it.”

McCahill acknowledges the connection between the ARAA and the industry trade group. “We make no secret the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America funds us,” he says. “But it’s not about the money. It’s about the kids who can buy the alcohol.”

Just how easy is it to buy alcohol through the Net? Kids certainly do have credit cards. So I decided to use my own credit cards on several sites suggested by the ARAA.

At Sams Wines + Spirits, I tried to submit my credit card information-and my browser stalled. Then I went to LIQUOR BY WIRE. After I’d spent 30 minutes scavenging for an inexpensive rum, the site informed me that it wouldn’t shipto Alabama, my state. California- based KENDALL- JACKSON WINERY said it delivered only to states that have a reciprocal trade agreement allowing such interstate liquor sales. That restriction ex cludes Alabama and about 37 other states, when I checked.

Feeling as desperate as Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, I decided to try wine merchant VIRTUAL VINEYARDS, where for about $25 I was able to order a Brut Rosé. Not exactly a frat-house favorite.

The point is that, in my state at least, I could have driven to the states in which the sites are located by the time I ended up able to buy anything, because they obeyed the existing laws. Other sites were simply online brochures. When I finally did find a site that sold me something alcoholic, I was told it would take up to three weeks to get the wine to me. While some kids somewhere might order beer, wine, or liquor on the Web, the idea that many would be willing to defer gratification for longer than it takes Domino’s to deliver a pizza is unlikely.

One last item: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has disassociated itself from the ARAA, dismissing S. 577 as a battle of industry powers. It seems that even when “public-spirited” groups like the AARA say it’s not about the money, it’s usually about…the money. I think Al Capone would agree.