Lobbyist for only national wine trade group steps down

Wine America head Bill Nelson was lauded in a farewell reception at a Capitol Hill hotel last week. The trade association he headed since 2005 has lost about 150 members in recent years.
Wine America head Bill Nelson was lauded in a farewell reception at a Capitol Hill hotel last week. The trade association he headed since 2005 has lost about 150 members in recent years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 2:40 PM

Wine has lost a champion in Washington.

When the effects of this recession on the wine industry are counted up, we will know how many wineries closed or were sold, how many vineyard acres were torn out, maybe even how many $50 wines dropped to $30. One effect, however, will be difficult to quantify: the loss of Bill Nelson as president of Wine America.

Wine America is the only national trade association of the wine industry. (The better-known Wine Institute represents only California's wineries. Although California produces 90 percent of the nation's wine, much of the industry's growth in the past decade has been in the other 49 states.)

Nelson announced last month that he would be leaving Wine America on July 30. Organization insiders said he fell on his sword to protect the jobs of the three staffers in the Washington office. No replacement has been named, and whether the organization will maintain a Washington presence is yet to be determined.

"One thing people don't feel obligated to pay when times get tough is membership dues to trade associations," Nelson said in an interview at the Wine America offices on 18th Street Northwest.

He came to Washington in 1994, when the organization was called the American Vintners Association and had about 400 members, as its vice president. Membership peaked at about 800 but, amid the ailing economy, has dropped to about 650.

Nelson, 67, was philosophical about his departure yet pointed in listing his accomplishments. As Wine America's president since 2005 and its vice president for 11 years before that, he fought the typical battles of a Washington lobbyist, making sure his members' interests were represented in appropriations and farm bills, and were protected from hostile legislation pushed by anti-alcohol lobbies or wholesalers. As he looked back on his tenure, he sounded like someone who is not yet ready to leave the battlefield.

"I was the prime mover in the expansion of federal funding support for enological and viticultural research," Nelson said. That effort included establishing a viticulture consortium of 16 states to distribute and share research funding, and the expansion of the Agriculture Department's own research program from two scientists working mostly on table grapes to more than two dozen working on all aspects of viticulture.

Under Nelson, Wine America also helped secure $50 million in annual funding in the 2007 farm bill for researching specialty crops, which he defined as "things that are not grains or cotton." It also helped establish a national clean-plant network that works to ensure that clonal propagated plants are free of disease.

Not all of Nelson's attention was focused on Washington. "We have helped state wine associations get established and coached them through modernizing state regulations that usually date back to Repeal," he said. "Many state regulations were ill-suited for a growing wine industry."

Nelson is leaving town with some issues unresolved. Wine America has opposed proposals now before federal regulators that would require ingredient and nutritional labeling for wines, which he said would place an enormous burden on smaller wineries.

"One thing that makes wine unique is that you have thousands of producers making tens of thousands of products that change every year," Nelson said. "It's not Twinkies. Even beer and spirits are reasonably consistent, but wine is always different."

The big battle still being waged is over the right of wineries to ship their products directly to consumers. The high point of Nelson's career with Wine America came in 2005, when the Supreme Court struck down laws in New York and Michigan that discriminated against out-of-state wineries by banning direct shipping across state lines.

"I was instrumental in developing the argument that wineries needed direct shipping," he said. "Say you have a small winery somewhere, and five or 10 people in the Washington area like your wine. No distributor will carry it, no one will stock it, but if you could ship a case or two to each of them, and to another 10 in Chicago or Boston, that's a significant chunk of business for a small winery."

The fight for direct shipping is not over yet. Nelson's last weeks in the capital were spent fighting the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act, a wholesaler-inspired bill that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court ruling.

"That's why wineries need a voice here in Washington," Nelson said. "They're not going to be able to protect themselves based on campaign contributions, like the wholesalers."

For now however, by their own choice and the vicissitudes of a harsh economy, the wineries' voice has been quieted.

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