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Remembering when Mississippi was a dry state

By Staff
Oct. 24, 2001
A number of years ago, the common description of Mississippi's attitude toward alcoholic beverages was that people here lived wet and voted dry.
It was the era of the bootlegger. Or, a time when on trips to Louisiana or Tennessee or other states that allowed packaged wine or hard liquor, to buy what you wanted, hide it in your car, and then smuggle it home.
A lot of people got rich. The bootleggers of course, county sheriffs who looked the other way, and local night club owners who operated in the manner of prohibition during the 1920s and early 1930s when the entire country pretended to be dry. Knock twice and tell us who you are. There were several such clubs on old Highway 80 between Meridian and Hickory, and I'm told they all did well.
Times change
Finally, those who could see through the hypocrisy managed to get a local option bill through the Legislature and the system under which we operate today was born.
But to get that bill passed, Mississippi residents had to give up certain related benefits which are common in most states.
First, no package store or restaurant could buy these products for resale from anywhere except the state's warehouse. They couldn't deal directly with a wine or liquor broker in order to get better prices. The state acted as the wholesaler, buying the beverages for resale, marking them up a fixed amount, and reselling to the retailer.
It is common to walk into either of the two Martin's liquor stores in New Orleans and find three or four major bargains. Martin's finds a wholesaler in distress, offers to buy every case of a particular wine at a bargain basement price, cash up front, then turns around and uses those wines as a leader.
For example, Martin's is currently selling a nice little Australian cabernet/shiraz blend made by Evans, a well respected winery, for $4.99 per bottle. What appears to be the same wine carries a wholesale price in Mississippi of $9 per bottle. Retail would be about $13-$14 here. The New Orleans Evans distributor, as I understand it, lost the line. Rather than store what was in inventory and sell a few cases at a time, they sold the entire lot to Martin's at a severe discount. Martin's is now reselling it for less than $5.
Such things can't happen in Mississippi, although from time-to-time, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control will cut back on the prices of some wines that have not been selling, or may be close to being over the hill.
Because the Mississippi retailer cannot negotiate with a broker, there are many great wines that are not available in our state. I am on the mailing list and I will say that overall the state list pretty well has something for everyone except the really pricey $100-$200 per bottle wines that are raved about in some wine publications.
Nick Apostle, who owns Nick's in Jackson and will operate the new Weidmann's when it opens in nine months or so, is probably the state's biggest wine critic. He thinks the list is too shallow, too much every day stuff, and not enough of the classics such as Bordeaux first growths, the great Burgundies, some of of the limited production California cabernet sauvignon's.
My major difference with the law that we have today is that package stores cannot do free tastings. In New Orleans every Saturday, Martin's offers its customers a free tasting of three wines, usually two reds and one white. I admit you're not talking about great wines but they are in the $8 to $15 range. You can taste before you buy. They also have several leading New Orleans restaurants who come in and cook, offering appetizers designed to lure wine lovers to dine in their establishment.
Different ways
Tastings at Martin's are held between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, and are generally crowded. These minor events benefit both the consumer and the retailer. But to do something similar in a Mississippi package store would be illegal.
Fortunately there is a legal way to hold commercial tastings and our monthly tastings are held in strict accord with that way. Thursday night's tasting of Italian wines at Northwood Country Club is an example. We will taste seven wines, two white and five red and each of the reds is rated 90 or above, meaning they are outstanding wines. The cost is $25 and there are seats available. You do not have to be a member of Northwood to attend. To make a reservation call 482-0930.
Perhaps some day the Mississippi laws governing alcoholic beverages will be changed. It is not likely, but perhaps. They are certainly not perfect, but having your favorite package store is a lot better than having your favorite bootlegger.
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, writes a weekly wine column for The Meridian Star.