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WINE : The Crusader

A Virginia Vintner's Full Court Press

The Case of Juanita Swedenburg Could Change the Nation's Wine Trade

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page F01

Even on a wet weekday afternoon in late March, a few people pull up to the door of the family-owned Swedenburg Estate Vineyard, one mile east of Middleburg in Loudoun County. What looks like a small, wheat-colored bungalow turns out to be the winery. That's where visitors meet owner Juanita Swedenburg -- a Virginia vintner for two decades and an unlikely free trade activist with a pivotal case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Every day she waits in the tasting room, decorated sparingly with a European-style tapestry and Oriental carpets. She is ready to make a sale but also to hear the outcome of her five-year-old case challenging laws that restrict her from shipping her wine directly to customers. She got a sympathetic hearing from the justices in December. The court could decide at any time.

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"Have you been here before and tried our wines?" Swedenburg asks two winery-hopping couples from Fredericksburg before launching into an unwavering and well-rehearsed description of five of her vintages. When a visitor asks, "Which ones do you keep in oak barrels?" she abruptly replies, "I say that as we go along."

She has lots of competition in the region. In booming Loudoun alone, there are 10 other small wineries. Virginia has 92 licensed wineries, up significantly from 29 in 1985, according to the Virginia Wineries Association, a trade organization.

"Now, this is the C'est La Vie , a European-style rosé with oomph," she says while pouring each couple a smidgen. Large windows allow an extended view of Swedenburg's 130-acre Valley View Farm -- a sloping tract of land with a distant stone manor house in the shadow of the Bull Run Mountains.

Swedenburg, whose wines sell for $10 to $15 a bottle, pairs wines with foods as she goes. Her Alsatian-style Riesling, for example, is right for canapes. Another, called Chantilly goes well with seafood. "People need to know that," says Swedenburg, who runs the business with her son, Marc, since the death last year of her husband, Wayne.

But when it comes time to make a sale and the customer requests that the wine be shipped, she always asks an important question. "Where are you folks from?" If they're from Maryland or any of the 23 other states that prohibit out-of-state vintners from selling directly to consumers, it would be illegal to oblige.

In a complicated web of state laws and regulations that date to the repeal of Prohibition, Swedenburg can ship wine to New York, for example, only if she establishes an office there, but the state allows its own wineries to ship to customers in state. The District of Columbia allows its residents to have no more than a quart a month shipped in from outside the city. Virginia residents can order two cases per month from any wine producer -- in state or not -- who has a Virginia shipping license.

Swedenburg has no intention of breaking any laws, especially while she is challenging the rules on interstate transportation of alcoholic beverages before the high court.

The stakes are huge. The case has been described as potentially the most significant test of states' constitutional power to regulate the alcohol trade since Prohibition. Over time, a victory for Swedenburg could revolutionize the way wine is sold. As of November, there were 3,382 bonded grape wineries in the United States, according to the trade publication Wine Business Monthly. "When it comes right down to it, people like to taste different wines from different places. And I consider wine an agricultural product that should be able to pass over state lines," Swedenburg says.

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