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The 75th Anniversary of Repeal

January 2009
by Hudson Cattell
The summer of 1978 was the only time I met Philip Hiaring Sr., the former editor and publisher of Wines & Vines. I was in San Francisco for the first time, and author Leon Adams had invited me to a luncheon where the first vodka made from grapes was being released. Hiaring complimented me on an editorial that had appeared in the March issue of The Pennsylvania Grape Letter and Wine News, the newsletter predecessor of Wine East. The editorial, which appeared in observance of the 45th anniversary of Repeal, was titled "We Take the 21st." This was the first editorial we published on the theme that it is fitting to observe the anniversary of Repeal by taking a look at the legacy of Prohibition, the lessons it should have taught us, and the odds that it might one day happen again.

"Lest We Forget," in the May/June 1983 issue of Wine East, was given that title because after 50 years, most Americans had not even a dim memory of Prohibition. By this time a return to outright Prohibition was increasingly remote, but the Prohibition era was still with us in many crucial ways. In the East, with its many individual states, there were leftover relics such as dry counties and pockets of inbred anti-alcohol virulence.

Our editorials over the years centered more and more on the attempts being made to repress all alcoholic beverages through various Neo-Prohibitionist tactics, such as the campaigns being waged by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. While they might not be considered to be prohibitionist in intent, blackmail tactics by the government to raise the drinking age nationally to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funds to states not complying were, to say the least, reprehensible.

Often our editorials focused on the need to be vigilant against the threat of regulations or restrictions that would work against the best interests of wineries: warning labels, special fees, advertising restrictions and much more. It was important for states to remain alert to challenges to direct shipping. In some states, wineries worked together to defeat or modify restrictive legislation backed by wholesalers. In at least one state, the right to ship wine was lost because the wineries did not take the threat seriously and act together to counter it--although a year later, they did work together to recoup some of what they had lost.

If there is one message that bears emphasis on this 75th anniversary of Repeal, it is the need to remain alert to what might happen next. Topping the list today may be the imposition of excise--read: "sin"--taxes in light of today's economic downturn.

But this threat is more obvious than others that may loom on the horizon. In Europe and in other countries, severe laws and restrictions are being placed on the sale and availability of alcoholic beverages in the name of curbing drunk driving, underage drinking, binge drinking, and crime and disorder. Increasing taxes, limiting hours during which alcoholic beverages can be served and advertising bans are being put into effect.

In France, where the ban on advertising is perhaps the most stringent, a serious abridgement of freedom of the press occurred when a court ruled that all press articles about alcohol must also contain a health warning. There are those who want to see the Evin law in France, which prohibits any incitement to buy or drink wine in advertising, extended to cover editorial material. It is more than a little frightening to see prohibitionist sentiment being transformed into outright censorship, especially in a country such as France, with its traditional, historic wine culture.

The cry everywhere is for drinking in moderation. It's hard to find fault with the concept, but when it becomes enforced moderation, it is prohibitionist. In England, a member of Parliament even proposed a bill calling for the use of 125mL glasses to limit the amount of wine purchased in bars and pubs.

Could what is happening abroad be exported to this country? While it may not be on the horizon here, it is always possible that similar restrictions could make an appearance.

Eternal vigilance, as it is called, must remain the watchword for the wine industry as the lessons of Prohibition continue to fade deeper into history.
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