Why We Love to Hate the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission

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In the wake of a recent post on the absurdity of wine shipping regulation in Texas, a cordial, however tense, dialogue (online and a voce) ensued between me and my friend and colleague Alfonso Cevola, a 30-year veteran of the Texas wine industry, a high-level manager for one of the state's leading wine and spirits distributors, and a top wine blogger in the U.S.

As we debated the value and implications of the ban on out-of-state retailers in our state, I expressed my visceral observation that the fact that I cannot buy wine and have it shipped from a wine store in New York City just feels "un-American."

Alfonso responded by pointing out that, "in fact, it is very American." He was right.

To understand our state's (and nation's) peculiar relationship with alcohol, we need to look back to the early post-Prohibition era, when the Twenty-First amendment made alcohol legal again in our country (national Repeal was passed in 1933; Repeal in Texas was not passed until 1935).

"The Twenty-first Amendment is a deeply contradictory instrument," writes Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America: from Prohibition to the Present (vol. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005). "In its first part it enables the return of alcoholic drink, while in its second part it allows for the growth of an unprecedented tangle of restrictive and obstructive regulation. As one winemaker has put it, 'Prohibition was never repealed, it was just amended.'"

"States' rights were one of the central justifications of Repeal," notes Pinney. "The federal government had been told, in effect, to keep its hands off... There is a powerful irony in the way that the Repeal argument of states' rights has been used to create formidable barriers to the liquor trade."

In a libertarian-leaning state where the governor would like to make the United States Congress a part-time institution, the notion that the government can tell its citizens when they can and cannot buy alcohol isn't easy to swallow.

So it's no surprise that when the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC, founded 1935) posted about the day-after-Christmas and day-after-New-Year's-day restriction on alcohol sales, its Tweet was met by derision.

@Houston_Foodie, one of the city's top food bloggers (also a good friend of mine), retweeted the @TexasABC post, asking rhetorically, "WTF?"

Another Houstonian, @KyleJack, sardonically applauded the news, writing "Honor the Monday and keep it holy."

Online research has not yet led me to original motivation for the law, Section 105.01 of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, which went into effect in 1977 and also prohibits the sale of liquor on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

But recent attempts to repeal the restriction have not been blocked by religious groups, as you might imagine. Nor has the Texas legislature been seized by anti-alcohol moralists or proponents of big government and big brother regulation of our buying options.

If the law were amended, said Executive Director of the Texas Package Stores Association, Lance Lively, when I reached him this morning by phone, "it would spread six days of profit over seven days... The notion that people are going to drink more if stores are open a seventh day doesn't seem to be the case, at least according to our research." The body officially opposed a recent bill that would have allowed for the sale of liquor on Sunday.

He echoed what John Rector, vice-president of Sigel's, one of our state's biggest wine and spirits retail chains, said earlier this year: ""We would end up paying more to keep stores open and pay staff. And sales would likely flatten over seven days instead of six days."

Houston wine blogger and lawyer-by-day Amy Corron Power documented a previous attempt to strike down the law in this excellent blog post (which I highly recommend). Retailers -- not moralists -- opposed the change.

What does the TABC have to say about all this hubbub? "We don't write the rules," explained Carolyn Beck, TABC spokesperson when reached by phone, "we just enforce them."

The Tweet, she said, was a "public service announcement."

So whatever the distant moral or religious origins of the "blue" law may be, it turns out that its preservation is inspired by the all-American spirit of commerce. Strict regulation of alcohol sales, I discovered, is not only American in its ethos: It's downright Texan.

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