How often does a moment in constitutional history become the occasion for popping champagne corks, or throwing parties? When the moment is the ratification of the 21st Amendment, it makes perfect sense. Dec. 5 marks the 75th anniversary of the day when Utah — yes, Utah — became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, repealing Prohibition and ending the nation's 13-year experiment with temperance.
To mark the anniversary, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America held a gala media event Tuesday night in the ballroom at the National Press Club in D.C. It was a fitting location, as the association's president Craig Wolf noted, because when Prohibition ended in 1933, it was the press club — rife with thirsty journalists —that was the first D.C. locale to start pouring legally again.
At Tuesday's event, a Scotch tasting was underway in one corner of the ballroom, specialty drinks in another, and in the middle was a gleaming makeshift bar offering clear and brown spirits of all description. Waitresses circulated with glasses of wine and champagne. Journalists at the press club were still thirsty, 75 years later.
"The 21st Amendment is to our business what the First Amendment is to many of you," said Wolf in remarks to the crowd, dashing the proud myth that reporters are often led to believe -- that journalism is the only profession protected specifically by the Constitution.
Wolf is right, in that the 21st Amendment led to creation of the three-tier (producers, wholesalers, retailers) state-regulated system for purveying wine, beer and liquor. That system is under challenge fairly regularly, most recently in the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Granhom v. Heald. The Court upheld the system, but said the 21st Amendment does not allow states to violate the Commerce Clause by discriminating against out-of-state wineries seeking to sell direct to their residents.
"The three-tier system is alive and kicking," said the association's co-general counsel Karin Moore in an interview at the event. "That's what we are celebrating tonight." The system provides licensed, safe and accountable distribution, she said. But Moore, formerly with the Federal Trade Commission and with O'Melveny & Myers in D.C., acknowledged that challenges persist, some brought on by growing Internet sales and others by antitrust concerns. She had just returned from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, which heard arguments Tuesday in TWFS v. Franchot, an antitrust challenge to aspects of Maryland's alcohol regulations.
Another theme of the event was to highlight the industry's growing participation in efforts to fight drunk driving and underage drinking. The association is supporting the movement toward special DWI courts in several states — courts at the post-conviction stage that combine mandatory treatment programs with the incentive of reduced prison time.
West Huddleston, CEO ofthe National Center for DWI Courts, was on hand at the event and said there are now 445 DWI courts nationwide. The concept, which focuses mainly on repeat offenders, has been recognized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We're incentivizing them to get into treatment and stay in treatment -- under heavy supervision," said Huddleston. "They come to court every week."