As with any wine, tax is most palatable in moderation

VINTAGE POINT

March 14, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Our new president is not known as a wine lover, but he does have a healthy admiration for Thomas Jefferson, who was.

So when William Jefferson Clinton considers ways of paying for a long-overdue national health care plan, there is at least hope he will take heed of his middle-namesake's words on wine.

"No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage," Jefferson wrote in 1818. "It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey. . . . Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle."

The circle of American wine enthusiasts is much enlarged from Jefferson's day, and now its needs are supplied by a domestic wine industry that was only a dream to Jefferson. But the United States is still not a country where wine is woven deeply into the culture of middle-class men and women.

That makes wine easy to portray as an exotic luxury, a threat to health, even a "sin." On both the right and left of the political spectrum, there are many who would love to tax wine out of existence on the churlish suspicion that anything that's fun must be a menace to society.

It thus behooves those of us who enjoy and appreciate wine to make our views known to our elected officials -- not with unseemly vehemence, but with the moderation we practice in our use of humankind's most fascinating beverage.

Should wine be accorded a special protected status when the government goes looking for revenue to bankroll health care? No. It's a crucial undertaking, and no form of taxation should be off the table.

But wine drinkers should not accept a punitive "sin tax" that carries the message that wine consumption is a social ill to be discouraged. A good case can be made that little of the health damage and social disruption caused by alcohol can be traced to table wine.

If anything, a truly health-conscious tax system would encourage drinkers of distilled spirits to switch to table wine.

After all, some of the healthiest and happiest people on the globe are Europeans from Mediterranean cultures, where wine is a central part of daily life and distilled spirits a rarity.

So if wine taxes must be raised, let's raise them with an eye toward necessary revenue and fundamental fairness, not neo-Prohibitionism and healthier-than-thou pieties. Keep in mind also that wine took a big hit in the Bush administration's "forget-my-lips" 1990 tax bill.

If we do have to open this whole subject, let's make a few fixes when we do it. Eliminate the gallonage tax on table wine and replace it with a value-added tax. Under a gallonage tax, a $100 bottle of Chateau Pretentious takes the same hit as a middle-class family's bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. That's not right. Wine should not be shunted off to an upper-class ghetto.

(Appalled connoisseurs should consider this: Without a broad-based wine-drinking public, our rights will never be secure.)

And if we decide we do want to use the tax to discourage abuse, let's aim for the real abuse. Slap a $2-a-bottle minimum excise tax on fortified wines. That won't be a big hit for the consumer buying a 1977 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Porto, but it will put a hurt on the sales of Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose and others of that ilk.

Jefferson would understand.

A Baltimore reader recently wrote:

"Until recently I have been happy with the colombards and reds I purchase in multiple-liter bottles and boxes. I have been aware that many domestic wines contain sulfites and that this can make them unacceptable for some persons. I thought I was fortunately not one of those persons.

"Recently, after consuming some generic burgundy, I had a distinctly unpleasant reaction. The label demonstrated that this wine contains sulfites -- as do other wines from which I have had no reaction. I am, nonetheless, forced to consider that I am one nTC who cannot safely drink wine containing sulfites.

"I plan to discard the offending bottle and to buy no more of any red containing sulfites. Checking at a wine emporium proved that any of the domestic wines I might buy contain sulfites."

The most ominous words on almost every wine sold in the United States are "contains sulfites." To many people those words are as threatening as "contains rat poison." We might not know what sulfites are, but we know they don't sound very good for you.

In fact, every imported or domestic wine you have ever tasted undoubtedly contained some sulfites. It's not a strange new additive, and is found in everything from jug wines to $300-a-bottle Bordeaux.

Some sulfites are formed as a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Others enter the wine through the use of sulfur dioxide to kill bacteria and preserve freshness.

Sulfur has been used for this purpose for at least 500 years, with little effect on most people.

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