The Politics of Drink

By Beacon Staff

Note: The addition of wine and beer to a meal are integral parts of the culinary world, and so this week, I deviate slightly from food to write about something I feel passionately about.

Before I made my mid-life career switch to the culinary field, I was knee-deep into some pretty nasty politics in a northeastern state and, as I now observe from afar (with great gratitude that I’m no longer involved), the politics there continue to devolve.

So here I am in Montana, happy to be cooking, making TV shows and writing this column and not involved in politics in any way, except to vote or sign a petition for something I believe in. And my pocketbook is relieved that our Legislature meets only once every other year for just a few months. That generally keeps them out of trouble.

But why am I not completely happy? Quite simply, because there are two powerful lobbies, united in a single cause, that have a virtual stranglehold on nearly every single one of our state legislators – in both houses – and it appears also to include the executive branch, too. So if there ever were to be any legislation to address the issue that these particular lobbies exist for, it is unlikely that it would ever see the light of day.

I write about the laws and regulations of Montana governing the sale of spirits, mired in 19th century cronyism and post-Prohibition paternalism that directly and indirectly prevents our state from creating new jobs and, in this difficult economic climate, keeping existing ones.

I have no idea how many restaurants have not opened because licenses to sell alcoholic beverages, in any form, are not available. I can only speak from my own experience. I tried twice. My endeavor would have created 30 new jobs. I even tried to enlist the aid of a now-retired state representative who told me point blank that he would not originate, carry or co-sponsor any legislation that would change the state’s liquor laws because he had taken money for his campaigns from these lobbies.

Why do we have this problem? It’s simple: It’s because the lobbies representing tavern owners and gambling interests don’t want those laws and regulations changed. They don’t want the state to create any new licenses because the current system, that limits the number of licenses, helps to increase the value of their existing licenses. It’s the tavern owners’ and gambling interests’ private little system to guarantee asset appreciation.

The laws and regulations themselves are extremely complex with various forms of licensing for caterers, restaurant owners, hotels, bars with and without gambling, retailers, wine stores, beer distributors and on and on and on. These laws are, quite simply, anti-competitive and therefore anathema to a society that is capitalist.

Without consideration of the generally lower-wage jobs that new licensing would create – wait staff, cooks, bartenders, etc. – let’s also think about the other businesses affected, such as the construction industry, food and beverage wholesalers, farmers and ranchers, appliance dealers, restaurant equipment companies, and on and on and on, not to mention our own governmental entities that would collect increased taxes and fees from all of this activity.

I have a friend who tried his best to operate a retail wine shop with a climate-controlled area for finer and rarer vintages – bottles that sold for well north of $100. The wine business is built on tasting, but in Montana it’s illegal for a wine retailer to let customers taste wine. My friend did it a couple of times and the state basically put him out of business.

I have another acquaintance that held a grand opening of a retail kitchen store. She also happens to hold a wine retailing license, and two undercover state agents “crashed” the grand opening party and fined her substantially for serving wine at her own party.

When a license to sell beer and wine only (called a cabaret license) now sells for around three-quarters of a million dollars in certain urban areas; when you can’t buy port or sherry or vermouth at a wine store (because they are considered fortified wines with a slightly higher alcohol content, so you have to go to a liquor store to get them); when a full liquor license approaches $1.5 million or more, there is something terribly wrong.

I invite you to ask your state representative and senator if he or she accepts contributions from the tavern and/or gaming lobbies and if that would prevent them from supporting legislation or revised regulations that would allow more restaurants, caterers and other legal purveyors of food to obtain a license at the prices originally set by the Montana Department of Revenue.

Find out if they support job growth, economic development that would generate increased taxes and fees for the state through enactment of legislation that is pro-competition and pro-capitalist through more open issuance of beverage licenses.

If they answer in the negative, ask them why they support two very small special interest groups holding such sway. I promise a lively conversation – if they’ll give you an answer at all.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.