Spotlight: NY Price Fighter KOs Big Fix

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Just a glass of wine, that's all. A little Moselle with friends, some Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak, a glass of Moscato with dessert—it's the small things that make the difference. And government manages to have a hand in so many of the small things that the most stalwart soul can sometimes lose sight of all that's good about life on the planet. The 21st Amendment did not establish a free market in spirits, and bureaucrats seem to have taken particular pleasure in the regulation of alcohol. Nothing is sacred.

But there are satisfying moments, little victories that go a long way toward allaying the multitude of injustices perpetrated by prohibitionists of every sort. Because of the resistance of one man for over a decade, the State of New York was forced to let wine retailers sell the fruit of the vine for substantially less than previously mandated prices. In the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Bill Mezzetti used civil disobedience to challenge the state's wine-pricing law. The final legal ruling was according to the Sherman Antitrust Law; New York was busted for price fixing in a victory as sweet as Tokaji Aszu.

Bill Mezzetti is the owner of Domenick's Choice Wines and Liquors in Astoria, Queens. The store opened for business in 1941, a mom-and-pop operation named after Bill's father. Later in that decade, New York passed a law about retail wine prices: they had to be set ("posted") by manufacturers—and stuck to by every retailer in the state.

Bill took over the family business in 1953. He could have gotten around the bizarre price fixing (posted prices represented markups ranging from 20 percent to 400 percent) like many others, selling below the legal price to regular customers and friends. But that is not Mezzetti's way. "I can live with blue laws," he says, "but when it comes to prices, this is where I get wrinkled."

Mezzetti decided to take on the State Liquor Authority (SLA). He broke the law. With a degree in marketing from Manhattan College, he did what he knew makes sense: he cut prices and went for a high-volume business.

The SLA fingered him the first time in 1967. After competitors complained to the SLA, a modern-day Eliot Ness skulked into his store in plain clothes and bought a case of wine at discount. Mezzetti was fined $1,000. Another undercover agent collared Mezzetti in 1971 for giving him a deal on a couple gallons of Almaden. He paid another $1,000 but did not reform. When he was caught a third time, the SLA levied another $1,000 and ordered a devastating 30-day shut-down of his business. The charge this time: Mezzetti had undercharged 12 cents on a bottle of Gallo Burgundy.

Mezzetti appealed to the state supreme court and lost. He went to the state court of appeals and lost. He was also losing money, to lawyers. Mezzetti explains that he had to hire liquor lawyers, specialists in "a highly sophisticated and specialized portion of the law."

On the very day that he was supposed to close his doors, March 30, 1980, help came via California. Like the California wines that bedevil the Eastern wineries, a legal ruling came out of the West to shatter the New York monopolists' schemes. California wine retailers had won a US Supreme Court ruling overturning wine price fixing in that state. Armed with the fresh precedent, Mezzetti's lawyers won in the court of appeals, overthrowing the state's wine-pricing controls. It was a fine day for Bill Mezzetti and free enterprise.

Mezzetti does not "talk" politics. He says he is neither a conservative nor a liberal. His motives for taking on the state come straight from the heart. He told REASON, "Frankly, I'm a very independent person. I came from grass roots and wasn't afraid of the State. I felt that they were wrong.…The State is you and I, and if you and I don't stand up and be counted, nothing ever happens. The unfortunate part of it is, it costs money." He admits that "there were many times I was ready to give in, but I just turned around and continued on. Sometimes you have to put the blinders on and just go forward. You're dealing against an authority, but because the authority says the law is right doesn't mean that it necessarily is. And I felt free enterprise was the answer."

Mezzetti was virtually alone in his struggle. The large business interests that have profited from the increase in volume did not support him while he took the heat and the risks, and competitors who liked the system just fine were often downright hostile. As he sees it, though, the exhilaration of writing "an honest receipt" for the first time makes up for a lot. And he likes charging less for wine. "Wine is a staple," he says, "not just an alcoholic beverage."

Liquor prices are still controlled in New York, but someone else is fighting that fight. "At this point," he reflects, "I'm not taking on any more…windmills." He's more interested in fishing, woodworking, and his children. His oldest son is in the family business; the younger, in college. His daughter was a communications major in college when Mezzetti was in the middle of his legal struggle. "She bit her teeth on my legal papers," he says proudly, "and changed from communications to prelaw." Today, she is an attorney.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers are paying millions of dollars less per year for more wine. Many New Yorkers retain European and Mediterranean culinary traditions, drinking wine regularly at meals, and more and more Americans are developing the practice. The next time you're sharing a bottle with friends and you run out of toasts, take heart, smile, remember Domenick Mezzetti's son, raise your glasses, and cheer for the small things that are good about life.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.

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