Alcohol Industry Prepares Its 2011 Lobbying Agenda

Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:16pm

Sparkling wine, beer and other holiday spirits may be a staple of New Year’s Eve merriment and good times, but the lobbying agenda of the alcoholic beverage industry is serious business.

And the lobbyists who represent the booze sector expect a busy roster of Congressional and governmental issues when they ring in 2011. Take champagne, for example.

The companies that make bubbly in the Champagne region of France maintain a U.S. outpost known as the Champagne Bureau. It’s the official U.S. representative of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), a trade association that represents the grape growers and houses of Champagne, France. The group wants the champagne name to be used only for the sparkling wines produced in the region, not sparkling wines from anywhere else.

Champagne Bureau spokeswoman Shira Levy said that March 10 will mark the fifth anniversary of the European Union-United States wine accords, which banned the future “misuse of 16 wine place names including Champagne.” But because “the agreement grandfathered in pre-existing labels,” the bureau will continue to press that issue, Levy said.

“The bureau believes that there are many sparkling wines produced around the world, but the champagne name can only be used on a label if the grapes and the wines [are] produced, under strict controls, in the French region that bears the name Champagne,” she said.

Supporters of the effort will embark on a letter-writing campaign to Capitol Hill, and in 2011, celebrity chefs, including José Andrés, Michel Richard, and a wide group of food and wine experts, will lend a hand to the Champagne Bureau’s side, Levy said.

Another booze issue that has been brewing for years may come to a head in 2011. Alcohol wholesaler groups are pushing for a bill called the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act, which its supporters say would affirm state-based alcohol regulation, among other things. Alcohol supplier groups such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Wine Institute and the Beer Institute oppose the measure because they say it would harm their businesses.

But for Craig Wolf, president and CEO of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, it’s a top priority for 2011.

“We’ve been very concerned about litigation that has been perpetuated over the past 12 years designed to weaken state authority over alcohol policy,” Wolf said. “We hope we can do it in a way that is less contentious than it was this year. My goal for the new year is the hope that we can move forward.”

The CARE Act also is a big deal to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said Michael Johnson, the group’s executive vice president and chief advocacy officer.

“While NBWA expects to be working on a number of issues in the new Congress, our top priority will continue to be passage of legislation that will stem the tide of lawsuits attacking the effective system of state-based alcohol regulation in the United States,” Johnson said. “This system works well to keep citizens and communities safe and allows entrepreneurs to grow, but that apparently is not good enough for some who are suing to break it down.”

But in a 2010 letter signed by the Distilled Spirits Council and other CARE opponents, the groups said, “The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) seek to dramatically alter the current system of alcohol regulation.”

The letter added that the CARE Act would “put brewers, wineries, distillers and retailers at a competitive disadvantage; allow states to unfairly and arbitrarily enact protectionist laws against out-of-state beer, wine and spirits producers; and effectively eliminate federal oversight of alcohol.”

Wolf said that in addition to the CARE Act, his group will be “very, very vigilant” lobbying to make sure an already heavily taxed industry doesn’t get targeted for new taxes.