Why is Sarah Palin keynoting the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers convention?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 22 2010 5:06 PM

Going Rosé

Why is Sarah Palin keynoting the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers convention?

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

When I received an official-looking e-mail last week announcing that Sarah Palin would be the keynote speaker at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America's convention in Las Vegas in April, I assumed it was a spoof—a lame attempt at humor by some underemployed, bien-pensant wine geek. Among oenophiles, there is surely no organization more reviled than the WSWA, which for years has fought efforts to liberalize interstate wine shipping laws. What are the chances that the belle of the Republican base would agree to be the feature attraction at a booze convention at Caesars Palace? But it turned out the e-mail was no joke. Palin will indeed be speaking to the WSWA, to which I can only say, acronym to acronym, WTF?

To begin with, there appears to be no evidence that Palin's an oenophile and it's unclear if she even drinks. For many years, Palin attended a Pentecostal church, a denomination that generally forbids drinking. In his recent tell-all in Vanity Fair, her former future son-in-law Levi Johnston said that Palin "doesn't drink or cuss much" and frowned on her husband's fondness for beer (Johnston claimed that Todd Palin got around the problem by hiding his six-packs). It may just be a reflection of my own narrow-minded cosmopolitanism, but if she does imbibe, I strongly doubt that she is a fellow member of the tribe (of wine lovers, that is). She seems more like a shot-and-a-beer type, an assumption supported by the few insights that she has offered into her gastronomic worldview; in her  book, Going Rogue, she writes, "I always remind people from outside our state that there is plenty of room for all Alaska's animals—right next to the mashed potatoes."

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Then there is the issue of whether it's even possible to buy alcohol in Wasilla, Alaska, where the Palins reside. Dozens of Alaskan communities are dry (a draconian remedy to an inevitable by-product of life on the last frontier: The harsh winters and the isolation tend to promote excessive drinking). But it turns out Wasilla is not one of them; in fact, it is home to a new wine bar called The Grape Tap. I spoke this week with co-owner Kelci Hatcher, who told me that Wasilla has quite a few wine enthusiasts and that business is good. "We came in, we served Veuve [Clicquot], Silver Oak, and Duckhorn by the glass, and it's been well-received," she said.  Before I could even get the words out, Hatcher answered the inevitable question: "No, we haven't seen Sarah yet." And what wine would she suggest if Palin were to stop by and request a glass? "I'd ask her what she enjoys and we'd take it from there."

But even if Palin is a closet Merlot fan, there are political grounds for wondering about her WSWA gig.  Since stepping down as Alaska's governor last summer to spend less time with her family and more time on Fox, Palin has positioned herself as a staunch libertarian. She is slated to be a headliner at next month's first-ever National Tea Party convention, which promises an orgy of anti-government histrionics. WSWA president and CEO Craig Wolf, in his press release last week, hailed Palin as "a great supporter of America's free enterprise system." If that is true, she certainly shouldn't address the liquor wholesalers, who have consistently impeded efforts to allow wine to flow more freely across state lines.

After devoting a column two years ago to the issue of interstate wine shipping, I vowed never to touch this migraine-inducing subject again. However, Palin has now obliged me to revisit it. To more effectively regulate liquor sales after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, most states put in place laws requiring an intermediary, the wholesaler, between the producer of an alcoholic beverage and the retailer. These regulations were enacted at a time when the U.S. wine industry was moribund and few Americans had an interest in wine. It is a very different story now: The country has several thousand wineries and millions of wine enthusiasts, and with the advent of online shopping and the ease and affordability of long-distance shipping, the three-tier distribution system has become an absurdly outdated barrier to free trade and consumer choice. Most states now permit some form of direct-to-consumer shipping from wineries, but the wholesalers are a well-financed interest group and have used their political muscle to limit the scope of many direct-shipping bills and to keep the existing regulatory framework intact. And direct-to-consumer shipping from wineries is just one part of this battle; at present, there are only a dozen states that allow people to have wine shipped to them from out-of-state retailers.

So why would Palin, champion of the free market and former governor of a state with some of the most progressive alcohol shipping policies in the country (despite all those dry towns and villages),  cozy up to the WSWA? It can reasonably be assumed that she is heading to Las Vegas for the same reason most people go there: money. According to documents recently obtained by Politico, Palin's standard speaking fee is $100,000, though she charges only $75,000 for West Coast events. (A WSWA spokesperson refused to say what they will be paying her.) As for what the organization hopes to get in return, Wolf said that "we expect she will share with the convention attendees her analysis of the current political environment and her vision for America's future." Palin's presence will surely bring more attention to the WSWA meeting than it would otherwise attract.  If the group had an explicit political motive for reaching out to her, perhaps it was to court social conservatives, who are among Palin's biggest supporters and presumably favor keeping interstate shipping laws as restrictive as possible (though it is worth noting that another darling of the religious right, Ken Starr, has been a key figure in efforts to overhaul those laws).

If Palin's libertarian rhetoric is sincere and she truly believes that excessive regulation is a problem, she should have no trouble recognizing that the wholesalers are on the wrong side of the shipping debate.  But will she have the audacity to go rogue in Las Vegas and tell them that? My guess is that she will not dare slap the hand that signed the check. If, however, she takes the podium at Caesars Palace and calls on the wholesalers to end their obstructionism, I am prepared to borrow a page (literally) from my colleague Dan Gross: I will eat not my words but hers by consuming the first chapter of Going Rogue, which I will chase down with a bottle of wine shipped to me from another state.