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City Watch: Yes to Gallo, no to special treatment

Fort Lawn sign (copy)

Wine giant Gallo is eyeing Fort Lawn near Lancaster for s $400 million distribution hub. File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

This much is obvious: The proposed Gallo Winery project in Chester County should be approved by the S.C. Legislature.

It’s what is commonly known as a no-brainer. Back to that later.

But this much is just as obvious: Gallo should not be granted the right to have what are called “remote tasting rooms” unless any and all commercial wineries in the state are given the same opportunity.

As someone who favors both capitalism and common sense, the battle over the proposed Gallo project shows how those things are left in the dust when South Carolina’s complicated, antiquated alcohol distribution and sales laws come into play.

In a nutshell, the system now protects existing wholesalers and retailers, requiring alcohol producers to go through them to distribute and sell their products.

That should stop now, with the Palmetto State joining the 21st century (or at least the 20th) when it comes to those alcohol laws.

The Gallo project offers the impetus to make the long needed change, but of course alcohol wholesalers and retailers are fighting it tooth and nail. Or cork and bottle. Or something.

And that is understandable, as the old way is their way. I mean, who doesn’t want a guaranteed, never ending, government dictated and legally protected source of business?

But then there’s that little thing called capitalism. You know, free markets and all that. Again, I favor it.

Which is not to say I don’t understand the position of the wholesalers and retailers. They’ve worked hard to build their businesses, many of which go back generations. But things change in the marketplace.

For example, when I was growing up we had three TV channel choices. Then cable came along and gave us 300. Then streaming came along and gave us 3,000, or whatever it may now be.

Bruce Springsteen even wrote a great song about the overwhelming media wasteland as it began to wash over us 30 years ago. It’s called “57 Channels and Nothing On.”

If you’re too young to have heard it or too old to remember it, I urge you to call up the video and check it out.

My point is, the government did not protect those three original TV networks from competition when cable came along, nor did it protect the 300 cable outlets from competition when streaming came along.

The same should be true for wineries (and all businesses), as it is not the Legislature’s job and should not be in their thinking to protect old systems and old players just because they represent the old ways of doing things.

Accordingly, the Legislature should overhaul the alcohol sales system in South Carolina and let the free market work.

But they must also allow it to work for everyone, with a level playing field that does not give Gallo preferential treatment when it comes to remote tasting rooms.

Those are small, winery owned establishments (and any new law should cover breweries and distilleries in the same manner) that offer thimble-sized tastings of the company’s offerings, along with the opportunity to purchase bottles to take home.

The core issue is why in South Carolina a big winery operation (as Gallo would be) or a small one (as a number of existing in-state wineries are) cannot sell their own product directly to consumers at remote tasting rooms (which are nothing more than retail outlets owned and operated by the wineries).

There is simply no reason to prohibit that, other than the protection of certain businesses at the expense of others.

Nor do I think remote tasting rooms (generally placed in high traffic tourism areas) would kill existing wholesalers and retailers, though it may force them to look for new business opportunities.

If those folks are smart (and they are), they would invest with existing in-state wineries to establish their own tasting rooms, joining in the new sales and marketing strategy and promoting South Carolina grown and produced products.

Now back to the no-brainer element of all this: Gallo’s plan calls for an initial $400 million investment and 500 jobs in a rural South Carolina county that badly needs it.

Get it done. But do it fairly.

Kevin Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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