A Day to “Wine” with Pride

Yesterday, prior to delivering his State of the State address, Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill making New Jersey the 39th state to allow direct shipping of wine to consumers. The law takes effect on May 1 and applies to small wineries anywhere in the country that produce less than 250,000 gallons a year. It gives New Jersey wineries the right to do what wineries in 38 other states currently can, directly ship wine to the homes of consumers within and out-of-state.

This was an effort that iMedia Public Relations has jointly worked on with our sister agency, Capital Public Affairs, for the past three years. We are proud that we played a role in bringing this legislation to fruition and equally proud that it was done using a total grassroots approach. The passage of this legislation was a total David vs. Goliath struggle pitting our firms and the small wineries in New Jersey matched against the powerful liquor lobby intent on keeping in place its three-tiered system of distribution of wine. Our argument, which we made continuously, was that the majority of New Jersey wineries produced too small a quantity of wine to be of interest for wholesalers. Our effort was focused on helping the New Jersey wine industry, currently seventh in the nation in production of wine, continue to grow by expanding their distribution network and at the same time giving New jersey wine consumers greater choice.

In December 2008, Capital Public Affairs launched http://www.uncorknj.coma website that provided information on the importance of giving New Jersey wine consumers the same choice that the majority of states in the U.S. had the ability to order wine and have it directly shipped to their homes. The site also provided news updates and gave consumers the chance to contact their legislators directly from the UnCorkNJ site. This site was launched in conjunction with the start of a lobbying effort in the legislature to bring this cause to the forefront of legislators and begin the process of developing legislation to seek the enactment of direct shipping. The original client was AmericanWinery.com, but after a few months they ceased their involvement. Thus, for some time, Capital Public Affairs pursued this on its own until about two years ago, when Tomasello Winery, the state’s largest winery, came on board as a client. iMedia began serving as the agency for Tomasello Winery and also served to help promote UnCorkNJ.com.

In December 2010, a U.S. Court of Appeals Federal Court ruling effectively ruled that New Jersey wineries were operating in an unconstitutional manner by not allowing out-of-state wineries to operate retail outlets and tasting rooms in the state. New Jersey had unconstitutionally discriminated against out-of-state wineries by permitting only in-state vintners to sell directly to consumers. The appeals court sent the case to U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden in Newark to preside over the constitutional challenge. Her options were twofold, either give out-of-state wineries the same right, or prohibit all wineries from selling directly to consumers. Judge Hayden extended her deadline for New Jersey to correct the situation to March 21, 2012. Failure to act on this could mean the closure of retail outlets and tasting rooms in New Jersey which would effectively close many of the state’s wineries. Over a dozen new wineries in New Jersey are frozen from being licensed until this matter is resolved. The effort then turned to merging a remedy for this situation into the direct-shipping legislation.

This process started with putting this issue in front of media throughout the state, making them aware of the danger facing New Jersey wineries that would be threatened with having their retail outlets and tasting rooms closed by Court order unless the state remedied the situation by enacting legislation. In June, we held a press conference at the statehouse in Trenton with former Governor James Florio, whose firm represented the Garden State Winegrowers Association, winery owners and my partner Steven Some of Capital Public Affairs representing UnCorkNJ.com. The purpose was to raise the seriousness of a pending deadline placed on New Jersey wineries by the District Court. At that point, the legislation did not have enough votes to pass.

However, U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden in Newark gave New Jersey legislators a deadline of March 21, 2012 to remedy the situation before acting. Throughout the summer and fall, we continued to make our case both legislatively and through the media. This issue was strongly endorsed by editorials in nine leading newspapers in the state.

Newspapers that published editorials in favor of the legislation were:

Burlington County Times, Courier Post, Daily Record, Express Times, Gloucester County Times, Newark Star Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Press of Atlantic City and Trenton Times. In December, S-3172, sponsored by Senate President Sweeney, passed the Senate 23-13 with bi-partisan support. The accompanying measure A-4436, sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski, Assemblywoman Celeste Riley and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, passed with amendments on the last day of the legislative session on January 9, 2012.

This legislation was signed into law by Governor Christie yesterday morning. In his State of the State speech later that afternoon, the Governor said the NJ Comeback had begun. For the New Jersey wine industry, the future was just beginning. We are proud to have played a small role in planting the seeds of its growth.

Tom Cosentino

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