In which I promise not to make a sour grapes joke

The Institute for Justice’s recent Supreme Court victory striking down numerous state laws prohibiting direct shipment of out-of-state wines received lots of favorable media attention. Brooks v. Danielsen is a lesser known case, but could be just as important for vintners and consumers right here in Virginia.

The case evolved from Bolick v. Roberts (yes, that Mr. Bolick), a 2001 challenge to Virginia wine laws. The case was vacated when the laws were revised and it eventually developed into the current controversy. At issue are the state’s preferential distribution rules that it grants to in-state wineries and denies to those from out of state. The first of these is that Virginia wineries are permitted to sell directly to retailers and restaurants without using a distributor; out of state wineries are required to use a more costly, three-tiered system of winery to distributor to retailer. The second advantage comes from the state’s ABC liquor stores, which have a monopoly on hard liquor (but not beer and wine) sales within the state. If individual stores decide to sell wine, they are only permitted to sell wines made in Virginia. Wines made anywhere else in the nation or the world are completely excluded.

á la the direct shipping case that went before the Supreme Court, these preferences are highly dubious under the Commerce Clause. That’s why District Court Judge Richard Williams struck them down in April of this year in Brooks v. Danielsen. He ruled that ABC stores may not continue to sell only Virginia wines and that in-state wineries may not continue acting as their own distributors. The reasoning is sound, but it has Virginia wineries in an uproar and seeking an appeal and a temporary stay. The small producers argue that they don’t produce enough each year to make working through a distributor possible and won’t be able to stay afloat without state protection.

The producers’ complaints have some validity. Direct sales to retailers are a large portion, perhaps 40%, of many smaller producers’ sales, most of the rest being sold to consumers in the wineries? tasting rooms and at festivals. Online sales make up only 1.5% of sales for wineries around Williamsburg, according to Beverage Journal, so they probably won’t be enough in the short-term to offset lost sales. Thus, even though Virginia wineries have the potential to benefit greatly from the increasingly free direct shipping market, gaining access to other states won’t immediately compensate them for their loss of in-state advantages.

Not surprisingly, this had led to renewed calls for protectionism. The editor of The Virginia Wine Gazette writes:

If the Danielsen case stands as it is, the small family owned wineries that have become an integral part of many communities would disappear. It has taken 30 years to build the Virginia wine industry to almost 100 wineries today and just one moment’s decision by a Richmond judge could rend that tightly woven fabric of families, friends and hard work to pieces.

It’s time to rally the wine troops and contact your local, state, and federal representatives and tell them that Virginia consumers want to protect the smaller family-owned wineries that do not have the production or resources to interest and/or use an outside distributor for greater retail and restaurant sales statewide.

To paraphrase a famous quote: “Give us liberty to drink Virginia wine, not sour grapes!” [JG: Hey, I promised I wouldn’t make any sour grapes jokes. I have no control over what the Virginia Wine Gazette chooses to print.]

I’ve heard some brazen claims in favor for protectionism before, but this is ridiculous. In the name of consumer freedom we must make it harder to obtain wines grown anywhere but in Virginia? The mind reels.

A far better solution would be to get rid of the distributor requirement entirely. Instead of lobbying to preserve an unconstitutional protectionist scheme, Virginia wine lovers should demand that all wineries be allowed to sell directly to retailers without a middleman. This would decrease the cost of wine to consumers, give them access to a wider array of producers, and allow in-state wineries to continue their current selling practices. Since it wouldn’t discriminate between in- and out-of-state producers, it wouldn’t run afoul of the Commerce Clause. The Virginia Wine Guide advocates this much more sensible approach:

Meanwhile, the wineries are hoping they will not face a suspension in such sales until the problems identified by the case can be fixed by the 2006 Virginia General Assembly, which will begin meeting in January. A major “fix” would be state legislation that allows everyone — in state and out-of-state wineries — to engage in self distribution within some kind of limitations, yet to be ironed out.

Even if that “fix” never comes to pass, the situation may not be as dire as it seems. All of the restaurants and retailers that have been selling Virginia wine will suddenly find themselves in need of distributors. Though distributors weren’t interested in the smaller wineries before, perhaps they will be in the changed legal climate. The small producers might even try forming their own distribution company to promote their wines. If politics fails, entrepreneurism may yet save the day.

For consumers the choice is clear: fewer legal barriers lead to lower costs, more variety, increased competition, and higher quality. If the in-state wines are really that great, they’ll be able to hold their own in the market, or will have to improve until they can. Virginia wineries, quit your whining. Show us what you’re made of.


Vosges and modern entrepreneurship

I sampled my first Vosges chocolate bar last year when someone brought one into Murky. It was the delicious Red Fire Bar, and from that time on I was intrigued by the company’s exotic chocolates, though price and availability prevent me from enjoying them too often.

Last night I learned that Katrina Markoff, the founder of Vosges, is a Vanderbilt alum. Vanderbilt Magazine just ran a cover story about her. It’s worth reading for its description of the chocolates and as a look at the new face of entrepreneurship:

Katrina Markoff doesn’t look like your typical hard-driving entrepreneur. Her long, wavy, dark hair is just this side of disheveled, and over her jeans she’s wearing an untucked, Western-style shirt embroidered with red roses. Markoff looks younger than her 31 years and seems sweeter than a company president should. She has a natural beauty and warmth that seem to captivate everyone she meets, from journalists to celebrities to the young, hip staffers (who are outdressing their boss by a mile, with their sharp outfits and high heels). But it’s clear that Markoff’s drive, intelligence and charisma are the emotional as well as the creative hub around which Vosges and its staff revolve.

The author gets this one introductory paragraph completely wrong. What is “your typical hard driving entrepreneur?” The past decade should have killed off the cigar smoking Uncle Moneybags image long ago. Markoff is interesting not because she’s so different from the typical entrepreneur, but because she so wonderfully embodies the possibilities that entrepreneurship offers in a world powered by diverse tastes, the Internet, and the demand for infinitely varied brand identities. The real story is Markoff as exemplar, not as outlier. For a creative, driven person, starting a successful business can be just as much about self-expression as it is about making money, as seen in the Vosges vision of its ideal consumer:

Markoff invented a character named Sophie to help embody and market the Vosges ideals. “Sophie is cosmopolitan, but into political action,” says the cosmopolitan, politically aware Markoff. “She can lay down in the dirt and go camping, but she knows fashion. She’s a little granola, a little fancy.” Looking at Markoff (still stunning after a long day of work, though her wrinkled shirt is riding up her tummy and her mascara is descending below her long lashes), one sees a woman who has tramped around the world from market to market, who loves to ride horses, who knows fine cuisine, who looks equal parts Vogue and Mother Jones?and the obvious question is, Where does marketing end and Markoff begin?

The big challenge for Vosges is maintaining the brand in the face of great success. How does Markoff keep the boutique feel of Vosges while doing $4.5 million in sales per year?

Markoff ‘s approach to marketing came out of the fashion industry, and she cites Calvin Klein as a model: “He has a big store on Fifth Avenue that defines his brand. Then he makes volume in perfumes.We create brand in truffles.Volume is in candy bars and cocoas.” But even the candy bars are available only at Vosges stores, through the catalog, and at Whole Foods Markets.

The company also serves as an outlet for Markoff to promote the changes she wants to see in the world:

All the [truffle] collections offer an opportunity for education. Markoff uses her packaging and catalog copy to talk about the countries and cultures that inspire her collections and often are home to the spices. Sometimes the collections offer an opportunity for social action or increasing social awareness. The Aztec Collection carries the message ?Save Women in Juarez,” referring to the epidemic ofmurdered or missing young women in that city. Twenty-five percent of the profits from La Grande Hatbox — a $200 collection of chocolate products –goes to support V-Day, the global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

There’s much more, including a section on how Markoff’s passion for yoga is also integrated into the business and some very enticing photos, in the full article (click on the .pdf).

Vosges chocolates are available here.


Torch and Slant in The Scene

I can’t resist quoting this Nashville Scene review of the local student media, which gives my old paper, The Torch, a very favorable write-up:

This robust commentary magazine for campus conservatives and libertarians excises the usual harpy prattle that hinders most ideological journals. Instead, The Torch presents well-reasoned arguments without condescending to its liberal readers. Recently, Ann Coulter’s engagement as a Langford Auditorium lecturer provided an interesting point/counterpoint debate between Torch’s Coulter sympathizer and its libertarian doubting Thomas. “I felt like I was listening to an insecure friend trying to use inside jokes to show she belongs,” wrote J. David Maynard about Coulter’s speech. A rightist magazine admitting Coulter’s snippy remarks look bad for the entire conservative movement? With caveats like these, The Torch is a battalion of intelligentsia any moderate or liberal could get behind.

Incidentally, Dave’s actually more conservative than libertarian. The Torch starts it’s fifth year of publication next month.

The Slant receives some good words, too:

Think penis-joke-obsessed teenage cousin of The Onion. Vanderbilt’s mockingly caustic satirist rag ruffled a few feathers when it distributed a bogus edition of The Hustler, falsely reporting Chancellor Gordon Gee’s untimely death. Two years and a few faculty censures later, the online edition of Vanderbilt’s sophomoric publication features Gee’s beaming countenance super-imposed over a busty blonde’s pasties-clad rack. The nebbish plutocrat is a popular target for The Slant’s perpetually snarky contributors. Once the Weekend at Bernie’s-style jousting recedes, The Slant proves to be a worthy contender to The Onion’s golden throne of sarcasm.

The Hustler and Orbis are comparatively panned.


The good news on Google Talk

Can everyone’s favorite Web company take over instant messaging? I’m trying out their new Google Talk and they’re off to a good start.

Pros: It’s easy to install and easy to use. It’s integrated with GMail. No annoying ads. It lets you talk to each other for free if you each have a mic and headset (haven’t tried this part yet). Most importantly, it’s compatible with the Jabber/XMPPP protocol. What that means is that it will work with other chat services, like Trillian, but not AIM, MS, or Yahoo. I really hope it takes off, just so we can get rid of this stupid situation where different chat clients can’t talk to each other. Can you imagine if emails could only be sent between people using the same mail service? IM shouldn’t work that way either.

Cons: Not everyone will be on it yet (email me if you need a GMail invitation to get started). Conversations with different people open in multiple talk areas. With three or more these collapse and transition in a neat way, but I still like the tab interface for its similarity to Web browsing.

I currently chat with an old version of AIM with a DeadAim add on, primarily for the conversation logging, tabbed windows, and ad blocking. Both are available at Until those two first two features are added, I’ll probably stick with these as my primary client. But in the meantime…

Go Google!

[Hat tip: Mike Podguski.]


WordPress bleg

[Update 8/22/05: Nevermind. I contacted the designer of the theme I’m using as a foundation and he instructed me as to what lines of code to delete.]

Speaking of site design, I’m going to make my first official bleg here. The transition to WP has been fairly easy, but I’m having one very annoying compatibility issue with Firefox. Specifically, it displays bullets on every item on the sidebar that do not show up at all in IE. I’ve tried changing the attributes of list items in the style sheet, but with no effect.

If anyone thinks they can take a crack at this problem, I’ll be most appreciative. Email me at


Flickr tag browser

Via Stone, a very nice site for finding photos on Flickr. Type in a search word and see photos with that tag. Then browse outwards with the related tags. Very seamless.

If it seems this blog has been awfully “meta,” that’s because all of my scarce Internet time has been devoted to redesigning this one. Two months after I moved into a new apartment I still don’t have a reliable connection. Thank you, Comcast, for proving just how bad cable monopolies can be. Ironically, I had better access in Michigan’s UP than I do just outside of the nation’s capital.

In the meantime, I’ll keep pointing you to sites far more interesting than my own.



While we’re on the subject of Google maps, here’s another neat tool to use with it: gVisit maps the cities of the most recent visitors to your website onto the Google map interface. Here’s the map for this site’s front page. Adding one line of JavaScript to your site is all you need to do to get it running.

Link via LifeHacker, who also links to this handy article on essential Google maps resources.


Cool new social networking site

Eh, not really. But it is a creepy and disturbing (for its anti-privacy implications) new way to use GoogleMaps. Combined with states’ public Megan’s Law databases, this site allows you to search your neighborhood for registered sex offenders. Type in your address and you will (hopefully!) show up as a blue pin on the map. Scan the map around your house and look for the red pins — those are the sex offenders. One click and you get their name and photograph; two clicks takes you to their full page of information.

So, who wants to have a potluck?

[Via TMN.]


Gimme gimme gimme

A man after midnight? Um, no thanks. But there are lots of things I want that I can’t put on my Amazon wishlist. And with so many of us bloggers posting wishlists these days, wouldn’t it be nice if we could include non-Amazon items? And organize them with tags? And keep multiple lists? And publish them through RSS?

Yeah, that would be sweet. That’s where MetaWishlist comes in. It’s a new service that lets you create wishlists with items from any site on the Web. For sites like Amazon that publish their product info and prices in a way that computers can easily understand, MetaWishlist fetches it all for you automatically. For less computer-friendly sites, forms on the “add an item” page make this quick and easy to do manually. For instance, in just a few minutes I was able to add the following items from very differently structured websites: a t-shirt from Bureaucrash, coffee from Counter Culture, wine from Best Cellars, and pickles from Toledo’s famous Tony Packo’s Cafe.

To direct people to your list, just post a link like this:

Or to narrow it down by tags, say “book”, like this:

Or to subscribe to an RSS feed, like this:

The site also has two very helpful features to make adding items easier. One is that it will quickly import your existing Amazon wishlist. The other is a bookmarklet that you can save to your bookmarks and access anytime you come across an item you’d like to add.

If you have any reason to keep and/or publish an online wishlist, Metawishlist is great and makes the transition from Amazon very easy. Check it out.

[Link via Tim Yang, who also mentions a similar site called TheThingsIWant. It does pretty much the same things, but I don’t like the design as much.]


Bravo to Penn Jillette

Famous magician Penn Jillette displays a lot more sense discussing free speech than he does naming his daughter (not that I’m one to say anything about that). After AMC theaters declined to show The Aristocrats, a new movie he co-produced that features 100 comedians telling their versions of the same filthy joke, the film’s distributor said the decision is a blow to free speech. Penn, true to his libertarian roots, takes it all in stride:

“At least it’s showing that words have power, and we haven’t had that statement made in a while–and the fact that it’s being made by a goofy, stupid person doesn’t make it any less uplifting,” said the speaking half of comedy team Penn & Teller.

Jillette was referring to AMC Film Group Chairman Dick Walsh, who, with other executives, decided to reject the film…

Jillette added that although AMC’s decision could cost him money and viewers, he doesn’t want to play the victim.

“One thing I really hate is people like Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, who are the exact same person with 1,000 sit-ups’ difference,” Jillette said. “They try to make themselves into a martyr no matter how much money they’re making. We are not martyrs on this.

“For us to make any sort of statement that our artistic expression is being trounced would be self-serving, unpleasant and not true.”

The movie will be playing in other chains and independent houses. More info, a trailer, and show times are available at the The Aristocrats website. For the D.C. crowd, it’s showing at the Loews in Georgetown and the Landmark on E St. on August 12; for Virginians, it’s in Fairfax’s Cinema Arts Center on the 19th; and for the Marylandians, at the Landmark on Bethesda Row, also on the 19th.

[Link via MagiCentric.]


Bat blogging


Bats are about the most common form of wildlife here in the Michigan U.P., but one doesn’t often get the chance to photograph them. They usually don’t come out until dusk, when you can catch glimpses of them against the sky or hear them swoop right by you on the sidewalk. This one happened to be hanging out on our house’s foundation yesterday evening.

Countless bats make their homes in the woods, attics, and eves around here. That’s good because of their impact on the insect population, but they do occasionally make it into the buildings. When this happens there are two options: try and guide it out a door or window, or pull out the tennis rackets for a rousing game of bat-minton. Option one is obviously the preferred and humane method, but it runs the risk of letting more bats in and isn’t always possible; we often end up having to practice our forehands instead.

Luckily, this usually only happens about once a year. A few years ago, though, our place was invaded by more than thirty of the creatures. This led to the one time in my life where I truly felt as if in a horror movie. I’d gone to bed knowing there was one bat loose somewhere in the house because it had been spotted earlier. Sure enough, I awoke an hour later to the feeling of a bat skimming very close above my face. I grabbed my racket, swung, and missed. Suddenly, a second bat revealed itself and joined the first in flying circles around my bedroom.

I decided to take a break from this and stumbled toward the door. As I pushed it open, I felt a bat brush against my arm (the first and only time one has collided with me). I groaned and stumbled into the pitch black hallway, assuming I’d gotten away from them. But I flicked on the light and was greeted with the sight of another dozen flying confusedly around me in this tight space. What the hell was going on here?

After a moment of panic, I awakened my grandparents and, rackets in hand, we dispatched of most of them. Then we uncovered the source of the problem. The bats had discovered a way in through an old, unused chimney. It’s opening into the kitchen had been sealed with a metal plate long ago, but the bats were apparently able to squeeze through it. We could tell because as we looked at the plate, trying to confirm that the squeeking noises we heard were really coming from there, creepy little bat hands darted in and out from behind it. See the rear feet in the photo to see what I mean.

We kept them at bay by shining a bright light above the plate for the rest of the night, then sealed it better the next morning. Many of the bats were still loose in the cottage, however, and we kept coming across them over the next week and a half. Sometimes this happened memorably, such as when one came crawling out of an oven mit hanging on the wall. Other times it was completely casually, like glancing up to see a bat hanging above the refrigerator when reaching for the milk. By the end of it all, we’d become surprisingly nonchalant about the presence of these ugly buggers. Ever since, their occassional appearance indoors has been greeted without alarm, though not always without tennis rackets.

Bats don’t do it for you? If this photoentry hasn’t given you the warm fuzzies, my old flatmate’s new puppy surely will.


Regulatory capture in Bordeaux

Once you’ve studied a bit of public choice economics, you notice poorly designed institutions showing up in the strangest places. Like, for example, the classification of Bordeaux wines.

My plane reading today was Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, a lively 900 page tome that’s serving as my crash course in the wine industry. In an aside she describes how the region’s chateaux remain stuck with the same rankings they were given 150 years ago for a Paris fair. Prior to 1855, the wines were sold solely under the labels of the estates, which competed on the basis of quality and reputation. Then the French government demanded a formal system of classification. As described in a Slate article on the subject:

The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, which was putting together the Bordeaux display in Paris, decided to feature a list of the region’s best wines and asked Bordeaux’s Union of Brokers to draw one up. The brokers, to their eternal credit, compiled the rankings in the most sensible manner possible: on the basis of price. In their view, the market had already determined which Bordeaux wines were best, and the classifications needed to reflect the market’s judgment. (If this market-driven logic sounds terribly un-Gallic, that’s because it was un-Gallic: At the time, the British were still the main players in the Bordeaux wine market.)

Thus was born the notorious 1855 Classification for wines from the esteemed Médoc area. The four best were deemed the Premiers Crus (First Growths), the next group were the Deuxième Crus, etc., all the way down to Fifth Growths. In all, sixty-five estates were classified. However good an idea this seemed at the time, the system had a major flaw: it’s almost completely unrevisable. The entrenched chateaux have no interest in being threatened with demotion or competing with the approximately 200 unclassified Bordeaux winemakers known as Crus Bourgeois. As a result, the classification has only been changed once since the first few months of its founding. That was in 1973, when Baron Philippe de Rothschild succeeded in getting his Chateau Mouton-Rothschild upgraded from Second to First Growth after years of intense lobbying. The list has remained static ever since, despite suggestions for change. Again, from Slate:

If the rankings are to continue to have any meaning, they need to be revised to take account of the way fortunes have shifted in Bordeaux over the last 150 years. But merely creating a new hierarchy would not be enough; the classifications would need to be updated fairly regularly, and they would really be credible only if they were taken out of the hands of the châteaux owners and the French regulators. (The procedure for making changes to the classifications is utterly opaque; as best I can understand it, any change to a category—say, second growths—needs the unanimous consent of all the châteaux that are ranked in that particular category, and also the approval of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, or INAO, the regulatory agency that oversees French wine production.) If, for example, the job of classifying the wines were entrusted to a suitably illustrious group of critics, the results would almost certainly be an accurate reflection of reality and would carry substantial weight with the market. But that will never happen, and any attempt to make wholesale changes to the classifications would inevitably be subverted by politics. It took 20 years of tireless lobbying and horse-trading by Philippe de Rothschild to finally get Mouton its promotion, and it was universally agreed that Mouton deserved to be a first growth.

Fortunately, better informed markets have made the classifications increasingly irrelevant. So-called “Super Seconds” have come to command prices in line with the First Growths and can be just as good. (Or so I’ve read. With Premiers Crus starting off priced in the three digit range per bottle, my interest is going to be purely academic for a long time to come.) Meanwhile, lesser wines are judged more by their quality than their classification. The list lingers on as a harmless monument to silly regulation.