Drew Bledsoe goes on lobbying blitz for wine bill
It was one long-distance delivery that neither Tom Brady nor his predecessor, Drew Bledsoe, could complete.
When Brady got in touch with the former New England Patriots quarterback three years ago to ask him for a case of the wine Bledsoe makes in his home state of Washington, Bledsoe wanted to oblige his old teammate and fellow Super Bowl XXXVI champion. But because Massachusetts restricts shipments from out-of-state wineries to consumers, the wine was intercepted on its way to Brady. Kind of.
“Brady bought some, but we had to send it to his dad’s house in California,” Bledsoe said Thursday, after a round of meetings with Bay State lawmakers he is hoping to persuade to change the law. “And his dad drank it all.”
In a visit that considerably raised the athletic pedigree of the lobbying corps, Bledsoe conducted a round of media interviews and legislative sitdowns, pushing for a House bill that would require the state to license out-of-state wineries to ship wine directly to consumers, instead of what Bledsoe calls the “three-tiered system” involving wholesalers and retailers.
Under current state law, wineries that produce more than 30,000 gallons annually and who work with in-state wholesalers are prohibited from sending bottles directly to consumers. Forty states permit wineries to ship across state lines to consumers, according to advocates of the bill.
The rule stems from a bill that Governor Mitt Romney vetoed, but which became law in 2006 after the Legislature overrode him. In 2010, a federal judge called it unconstitutional and was backed up by an appeals court. But the Legislature has not followed through with a remedy, creating an operational gray area that discourages winemakers from shipping into the state.
The legislation backed by Bledsoe and a coalition called Free the Grapes! has had slow going on Beacon Hill, despite what Bledsoe calls “bipartisan support, to the extent that that matters in Massachusetts.” Governor Deval Patrick, something of an oenophile himself, said he was a strong supporter of the bill and had personally encountered the blockade against wine shipments when he vacationed in Napa, Calif., and was unable to send cases back to the Commonwealth.
“I like wine,” Patrick said. “I have friends who are serious collectors and complain about it. And I’ve traveled with people where we’ve done vineyard tours and want to ship it back and they say, ‘Where do you want to ship it to?’ And when I say where, they say, ‘We can’t do it.’ ”
Despite support in high places, concerns for the local wine industry have hobbled the bill’s progress.
Bledsoe says, however, that these concerns are misplaced, arguing that once consumers contract the wine bug the way he did – “got a little bit older, got married, and discovered that beer wasn’t the only thing out there” – they will start sleuthing for brands and flavors, buying more wine regardless of the venue.
The Walla Walla Valley cabernet sauvignon, the sole kind that Bledsoe sells, comes from a burgeoning wine region. When he graduated from high school in 1990, there were five wineries in an area that now has 120, Bledsoe said. He can go into fine detail about the region’s grape-growing benefits, talking at some length about tannic structure and how the grapes in the valley reach a pleasing maturity partially as a result of Ice Age glaciers leaving behind a “porous but mineral-rich soil.”
The guy who wore Number 11 for the Patriots, picking apart AFC East defenses, and engendering the rally cry “11 equals six,” now scrutinizes acidity and talks about the pressure of picking a wine during blending trials.
“At least you can make it sound like Drew knew what the hell he was talking about,” he said over lunch at a Beacon Hill eatery.
The valley, where he grew up, is a key part of the business strategy and helps explain the name of Bledsoe’s wine, Doubleback. “Our story is not about the football player guy, it’s about Walla Walla” and “doubling back” to come home, he said.
He and his wife, Maura, bought their first vineyard in 2003 and hired Chris Figgins, a next-door neighbor who grew up in a winemaking family, to oversee production. Referring to what he calls “my first career,” Bledsoe likened himself to an owner and general manager and Figgins to the head coach and quarterback.
He laughed when asked if Figgins had ever used on him a line made famous by Bledsoe’s first pro coach, Bill Parcells, who explained his frustration at the tail end of his tenure with the Patriots by saying, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
Bledsoe, who registered with the state as a lobbyist and expressed some frustration with the pace of legislation, said he is playing an expanding role in the physical production of the wine, which sells for about $89 a bottle and at a clip of about 2,000 cases per year. “I know just enough to be dangerous,” he said.
While he acknowledges that having the name of a Super Bowl champ and four-time Pro Bowler attached to the wine helps move product, there is a downside. If a connoisseur tries Doubleback and doesn’t like it, he said, “they’re going to tell a lot more people it’s bad.”
“With wine,” Bledsoe said, “you only get one chance.”