Interview with Jeremy Benson from Free the Grapes! – Part 1

Below is the transcript from the first part of an email interview with Jeremy Benson, Executive Director of Free the Grapes!

Q: Can you start with some background on Free the Grapes! and its mission?

Free the Grapes! was founded in 1998 as a result of the wholesaler’s success in making Florida a felony state for direct shipments to adult consumers in late 1997. Several groups met to discuss how to best work with consumers in Florida and other states, who form a natural constituency, and were vocal despite the Florida defeat. Soon thereafter the Wine Institute, Napa Valley Vintners, WineAmerica, Coalition for Free Trade and Family Winemakers of California formed the organization and conducted an agency search. Fortunately Benson Marketing Group was retained to manage the consumer and media outreach campaign starting in May 1998.

Our mission has never changed: to ensure consumer choice in wine. We focus exclusively on this issue, that is, the domestic direct shipping of wine from wineries and retailers to consumers.

We are a national grassroots coalition of consumers and wineries. We’re not lobbyists or attorneys, but we work closely with the organizations and firms that conduct these services. The Board of Directors of Free the Grapes! is comprised of professionals representing these areas, and wineries and retailers of course. In effect, Free the Grapes! serves as the table around which the wine industry can discuss the issue in a constructive, positive manner.

And this cooperative approach has been extremely successful. In 1998 there were 17 legal shipping states, now there are 32. Wineries now have the option of shipping directly to consumers in states that represent 78% of US wine consumption. The attorneys and plaintiffs had a huge victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. We have the support of the Federal Trade Commission. We have 300,000 consumers on our mailing list that sent 60,000+ letters to their state legislators in 2005.

There’s still a lot of work to do to do. Namely, we need to support lobbyists who are quietly cleaning up overly burdensome regulations. We need to oppose wholesaler campaigns that aim to set wineries and consumers back with new burdens on shipping. And because wine retailers can ship to, at most, consumers in just 12 states, we need to ensure that wine retailers also participate in a national marketplace with reasonable compliance requirements.

But I hope, and trust, that one day soon we’ll achieve our mission and fold up our tent, knowing that we’ve helped consumers, wineries, retailers and, yes, even wholesalers, to further wine in America by augmenting the 3-tier system with limited, regulated direct wine shipping. That will be a great party!

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your current efforts to remove direct shipping restrictions?

There’s really only one obstacle, and it’s the wholesalers, who mistakenly believe that direct-to-consumer wine shipments somehow infringe on their market. But direct shipping is a consumer-driven issue, and we know that direct shipping actually helps ALL tiers of the wine industry. Wine clubs, tasting room sales, and online and email sales are a significant portion of revenue for some wineries, but they help 3-tier sales for any sized winery. Clubs are like a pay-for sampling program that pulls those wines through the retailer-wholesaler tiers. So it is perplexing, to say the least, that wholesalers in positions of leadership continue to oppose these shipments and take an aggressively anti-consumer stance.

Q: What are the best ways for wine enthusiasts to get involved?

Consumers can log onto www.freethegrapes.org and sign-up for our free email list. We’ll contact them with periodic updates and when there is legislation pending in their state. It’s the best way for wine lovers to get engaged, and it doesn’t take many to really make a difference!

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