Monday, March 04, 2002

Ohio most expensive place in U.S. to buy wine

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — Ohioans are buying more wine, but they're also paying more per bottle than anyone else in the country because state laws don't let the marketplace set prices, The Plain Dealer reported Sunday.

        The state requires a 135 percent increase in a bottle's price before it can be sold, even though Ohio gets none of the money from markups other than a tax of 7 cents a bottle.

        Ohio consumers spent $300 million on wine last year, 50 percent more than a decade ago.

        Consumers can pay from one fourth to one half more for a bottle of wine in Ohio than in other states, the newspaper said. Utah's lower required markup is the only one that comes close.

        Ohio is one of 17 states that still regulate the sale of alcohol. None, though, is as generous to distributors and retailers as Ohio.

        Dan Greathouse, president of Heidelberg Distributing in Cleveland, said that if “the minimum pricing went away, the big chains ... would come in here and have a heyday. If they take away the price controls, they will ruin a lot of Ohio's family businesses.”

        Some Ohioans are turning to Internet or out-of-state suppliers for better deals.

        To make such purchases legal, buyers must fill out paperwork and pay state taxes on the wine. Many skip the tax, the newspaper said, hurting both the state and Ohio retailers who lost business.

        The agency that oversees wine sales is the Beer and Wine Section of the state Department of Commerce's Division of Liquor Control. Its rules date to the late 1940s.

        State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a Shaker Heights Democrat, said the agency “long ago stopped focusing on safety and the public interest and has become a tool of special interests.”

        Lobbyists for wine distributors in Ohio, who have an interest in seeing the price controls continue, have contributed generously to state politicians.

        The Plain Dealer calculated that the Wholesale Beer and Wine Distributors of Ohio has raised nearly $1 million in the last eight years for its Political Action Committee that annually gives money to both major parties, the governor and most legislators.

        The amount donated by the distributors' PAC in election year 2000, about $170,000, was almost twice as much as was given during 1996, about $90,000.

        The PAC contributed money to two of the three members of the state's Liquor Control Commission — Rocco Colonna and Janet Howard — when they were state legislators. Colonna and Howard did not return phone calls seeking comment.

        Commission members, appointed to six-year terms by the governor, are responsible for establishing rules such as the mandatory markups on wine and for ruling on some liquor law violations. Their salaries are $45,000 to $49,000, depending on when they were appointed.

        The commission's next public meeting is Thursday in Columbus.

        “Until people see there is no reason for them to pay $18 for a bottle of wine here when they can get it for $10 in another state, things won't change,” said Cleveland lawyer and wine collector Eric Baker. “The only people that benefit are the ones that sell it.”


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