Thursday, June 14, 2007

Oklahoma Wine -- Endangered Species?

Often my articles in the Edmond Sun get posted on the web. This one didn't. But I'd like to share it because I feel so strongly that the Oklahoma wine industry is important and needs our support. So, here's the text of the article that appeared in the Edmond Sun on June 3rd.

A number of jokes begin with the words, “I have some good news and some bad news….” This story begins like the jokes – only it’s not funny. The good news is that the Oklahoma wine industry is growing. The bad news is that liquor wholesalers, with the complicity of the legislature, may kill it.
Oklahoma now has 48 wineries. Not all wineries have their own vineyards; others have vineyards but don’t grow enough grapes for their own production. This opens up an avenue for crop diversification; a number of farmers have turned portions of their land over to grape cultivation. Wine tourism is growing in importance. Travelers get off the interstates to visit wineries and leave more money in the state. And wine, particularly red wine, has some real health benefits. All this is good news.
Oklahoma voters apparently appreciate the case for the local wine industry. In 2000 a state referendum passed in all 77 counties, by a margin of 70 per cent or more, allowing winemakers to sell their products directly to retail liquor stores and restaurants.
Wineries in Oklahoma are, for the most part, boutique facilities. Their output is small and their profit margin is slim. Start-up costs are not inexpensive. One well-established winery is expecting to operate in the black this year, after seven years of red ink.
And now, for the bad news. Thanks to three liquor wholesale companies in Oklahoma, wineries may be forced to sell their products through wholesalers who take up to a 22 per cent cut for their minimal efforts. The wholesalers sued the ABLE Commission, saying direct sales were illegal. Seems they’re concerned that large out-of-state producers are going to be crushed by Okie wine sales. Or are they worried that the out-of-staters might be able to bypass them, too? A federal judge was forced to agree with the wholesalers based on a US Supreme Court case preventing discrimination between in-state and out-of-state wineries. He did, however, stay his decision to give the legislature time to rewrite the Oklahoma law so that it not only conformed to federal law, but reflected the wishes of Oklahoma citizens (remember the 2000 vote).
All efforts to present such a bill failed. What passed was a bill reaffirming the old three tier – producer, wholesaler, retailer – system which would cripple the fledgling Oklahoma wine industry. To find out why, a good detective would “follow the money.”
That would be money in campaign chests and wholesalers pockets at the expense of the Oklahoma wine industry, the state and, ultimately, the citizens of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma statistics aren’t available but statistics from other states are revealing. Forget the number one state, California, where the grape and wine industry (over 2000 wineries) has a $51.8 billion impact on the state. Look at North Carolina with 55 wineries – 2005 figures place the industry impact at $813.3 million.
How does this relate to a travel column? Wine touring is a big draw. Individual wineries may be small, but together, they create an important tourism niche.
What can you do? Visit a local winery; sample the wares and talk to owners about the current law and how it will affect their business. Call your legislators – and don’t be put off by smoke-screen issues like tax collection, internet sales and sales to under-age buyers. These issues are easily resolved. The bottom line is – do we want to support Oklahoma’s expanding wine industry or will we let it be nipped in the bud?