Wine enthusiasts stomp on shipment proposal

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Mike Havelka and Andy Kozusko are inviting fellow wine enthusiasts to a Bellevue restaurant event that is equal parts party and protest.

Mr. Havelka, a Sewickley businessman, and Mr. Kozusko, a Downtown attorney, hope Wednesday's dinner at Vivo will help head off legislation that would require all wine shipments to go through Pennsylvania's state store system.

These are not your typical wine drinkers.

"The way the wine business works, the best wines that are made in the United States are all sold exclusively via a mailing list," explained Mr. Kozusko one recent afternoon.

The mailing lists are necessary because the wineries that interest them may produce fewer than 1,000 cases annually, under very exacting conditions. Every bottle is sold in advance and individuals such as Mr. Havelka and Mr. Kozusko may be allotted only a few from each vintage. They can pay up to $300 per bottle.

With that kind of investment, they want to know how the wine is bottled, shipped and stored. Rather than risk getting "cooked" wine, they time their purchases to avoid extreme temperatures, ordering in the spring or fall seasons, often shipping overnight.

The prospect of their wine going through Pennsylvania's state store system is enough to uncork a river of worry and resentment.

"Wine does not like light and heat. If you're paying a lot of money for wine, it matters," said Mr. Havelka. "How do I know it wasn't sitting there in 80 degrees in a warehouse in Harrisburg, or if some guy left it outside? The state of Pennsylvania can offer me no guarantees."

The object of their concern is a bill introduced by Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, that would require all wine orders to be routed through a state store or distribution center. Customers would either pick it up themselves or, for an extra fee, have it delivered to their home. All applicable taxes would apply.

No action is expected on the bill before public hearings scheduled for this summer, and Mr. Costa encouraged interested parties to submit testimony. Despite the bill's wording, he said he's not certain the state would need to handle wine shipments "as long as we are assured the state gets some kind of transaction report."

Wine collectors and wine enthusiasts have long chafed under Pennsylvania's restrictive liquor control laws that historically allowed direct shipping to private homes by Pennsylvania wineries, but not out-of-state wineries.

Then a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined that shipping regulations must apply equally to all wineries, prompting some states to open direct shipping to everyone and others to block it for everyone.

For three years, Pennsylvania has remained in murky legal territory. Pennsylvania wineries have continued to ship but, rather than risk legal or political repercussions, most California wineries still won't ship and common carriers such as UPS and Federal Express have policies against delivering alcohol to private homes.

Mr. Costa said he introduced the bill "as a way to get the conversation started" about how to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the Supreme Court decision.

"Otherwise someone is going to sue us one day," he said. "We're going to have to make a change eventually."

Nevertheless, the proposed legislations has sent a shiver through the fine wine community.

"I literally have not bought a bottle in a state store that wasn't heat damaged," said Mr. Havelka. "There is no chance I would ship it to a state store."

Mr. Havelka has started a petition campaign that proposes a system of registering wineries to direct ship and making them responsible for fee and tax collections (the petition can be found at www.ipetitions.com/petition/PAWineFreedom/index.html).

He knows their efforts represent a very select group. "It's not as if we're hoping to get 20,000 signatures. This is an orphan issue. A lot of people don't know about it and a lot of people don't care."

The Liquor Control Board hasn't said what it thinks of the contention that it can't do a good job of handling fine wines. Its spokesman Nick Hays responded to a request for comment on the issue by saying that "the Liquor Control Board will work with the Legislature as a resource to help develop the best solution for the Commonwealth."

Wednesday's dinner is meant to kick-start the drive while enjoying interesting wines. Participants have been encouraged to bring wines not available in state stores.

"We're not the Boston Tea Party. We're not the Whiskey Rebellion," said Mr. Havelka. "We are offering a reasonable proposal to the state that benefits the residents of the state who are taxpayers. It won't affect sales of wine and spirits a bit."

Any dinner with wine lovers like Mr. Havelka and Mr. Kozusko can be an event in itself.

On a recent evening at Vivo, 16 wine glasses sprinkled the table for four by time the entree arrived. There were four wines to sample -- a 2004 bottle of a rich Australian shiraz called Hundred Acre (which costs $200 a bottle), a 2002 Napa Valley cabernet, Merus, a 2004 Pax Syrah and a 1997 Rosso di Montalcino. Each new corking required fresh glasses all around.

If the labels sound unfamiliar, it's because none but the Rosso can be found in wine stores. The winemaker who bottles Merus, for example, "makes it in his garage" in Napa, Calif., Mr. Kozusko said.

The world of fine wines that Mr. Havelka, Mr. Kozusko and their friends inhabit requires a discerning palette and a certain amount of money. The reward is pleasurable evenings of food and drink with friends.

For Pennsylvanians, purchasing such wines has been illegal unless ordered through the state store system -- a step that has made some of the best wines all but unobtainable, at least legally.

Still, to get a desired wine, people have tried a range of strategies, such as having the wine shipped to friends or relatives in West Virginia or Ohio. Some rent wine lockers in California, and route the wine through those businesses.

The 2005 Supreme Court decision has made Pennsylvania's shipping law essentially unenforceable, but Mr. Havelka fears that will change if the Costa bill becomes law.

"The state is trying to push people like me into criminal behavior," he said.

Eventually there may be a law requiring even fine wines to go through the state store system, he added, "but, rest assured, people are smart and they will find a way around it."


Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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