A Bittersweet Victory for Va. Winemaker

"He stood by me so much," winemaker Juanita Swedenburg said of her husband's support during her fight against interstate commerce laws. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Juanita Swedenburg's faded old clock radio-telephone kept chiming yesterday. She'd pick up and, most of the time, sound pretty convincing.

It was a great day for consumers, the Middleburg winemaker would tell reporters. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on a lawsuit she brought five years ago, struck down some state laws blocking small wineries such as hers from shipping directly to customers. It was a huge victory for wine lovers, for entrepreneurs battling protectionism, for constitutional government. She was thrilled.

But, during call after call, Swedenburg would close her eyes. Her mix of diplomacy, gruff charm and bullheadedness had brought her this moment. Sitting beside an old typewriter under a photograph of her husband, Wayne, however, the former Foreign Service officer kept squeezing her thumb and forefinger against the base of her nose, pushing into her eye sockets.

"He had cancer for years. He was fighting it and battling it. He stood by me so much," Swedenburg said of her husband. "He never made fun of me for doing something as foolish as this. Some men would say, 'What are you getting into all this foolishness for?' Not him."

When Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave the court's answer to all that foolishness yesterday morning, Swedenburg was walking among the crooked old vines and new plantings at her Swedenburg Estate Vineyard. The day was a decade in coming. It was also the first anniversary of her husband's death.

Yesterday, as she continually parsed the court's decision, stood for a photographer, sold some of her Riesling and rosé, and recounted her education in the intricacies of the nation's often-conflicting wine laws and the implications of yesterday's ruling, Swedenburg also faced another day without the man she met in Saigon in 1951.

When Swedenburg learned that selling wine might have made her a criminal, she started years of nudging and cajoling one of her customers, Clint Bolick, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm in the District. It took five years of nagging, she said, but Bolick decided to take the case -- then took it to the nation's highest court.

The legal question before the Supreme Court was whether states could ban wine shipments to consumers from out-of-state wineries while allowing them from in-state wineries. Swedenburg and her allies argued that such bans undermined free trade among states and were unconstitutional. Opponents, led by alcoholic beverage wholesalers and state regulators, said the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition in 1933 gave states the freedom to regulate as they see fit.

In yesterday's ruling, the court sided with Swedenburg, who was incensed that the wholesalers and others had successfully lobbied in recent years to stiffen penalties for shipping wine.

"I'm just delighted. I have a feeling I'd like to cram it down their throats," she said. "The principle is what has kept me going. When I think about it, and when I talk about it, I get upset all over again."

She said the fight cost her business. She sells about 2,000 cases a year out of her tasting room. Before she brought suit, she was selling an additional 400 or so cases directly to consumers. She stopped doing that until her case was resolved, she said, because she was fearful of a sting by opponents.

Swedenburg and her husband met during his third tour of duty. He'd been in the Air Corps in World War II before joining the Foreign Service. He survived a grenade attack in Palestine in 1948 and got a plate put in his shoulder before being sent out again, to Greece, then Asia.

"He would always be very quiet when I'd go off on my rampage about the situation. He was always like that in guiding me in his kind of quiet way," she said. "If you get married, you don't realize how much of an impact you would have if you would find fault or make fun of something your wife would do. He would never do that."

Yesterday, one of the calls to Swedenburg came from her son Marc, who was also thinking about the one person missing. "I've got to learn to live with it, don't I?" she said. "I'm working on it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company