Squeeze Play

In wineries across the state, the presses are squeezing out the juice for the 2005 vintage. But even before the wine is in the barrel, another squeeze is under way, and this one goes on throughout the year. This squeeze is performed in the name of charity and goodwill, but it's becoming more prevalent every year, and the pressure's on the winemakers, not the grapes. It all seems so simple. What better way to fuel a charity auction than to ask leading winemakers to contribute a few bottles of their best to be put up for bid in the public interest? The cost to the winemaker is nugatory, compared to the benefit derived by the charity, when such bottles are dangled before a well-oiled audience of conspicuous consumers. Indeed, the system worked well for a while, as long as the only serious auction of the year was that hosted by the Washington wine industry each August to benefit Children's Hospital. But so rich were the rewards reaped by Children's that other charities began getting in on the act. In 1991, PONCHO, the arts-support group, added an annual fall wine auction to its long-running May bash. And we are not talking small change here. Last week's event raised upward of $200,000, not including proceeds from tickets ($350 a head). Now virtually every middle-class fund-raising effort right down to the elementary-school level has its wine component, which means that a week rarely goes by that winemakers and wine merchants are not hit up for a contribution. Retailers have a great out. They can say that state law forbids them to give alcohol away, but wine producers are totally exposed. Everybody knows that a bottle of wine doesn't cost a fraction of its list price. It's not like we're asking you for hard cash, you know. . . .  The trouble is, if you're a small-production winemaker (and they're the ones, usually, who make the most highly prized wines), you are being asked for cash. Chances are, you can sell every bottle you make at retail. There's no such thing as a free lunch, unless you're soliciting for charity. Winemakers, without publicly dragging their heels, have become remarkably adept at being out of the office and away from the phone when solicitors come calling. ("The person who handles that for us is on vacation . . . out of the country . . . on maternity leave. . . . ") Some people beating the bushes for contributions have actually begun to solicit contributions from collectors, who are pretty much the same people who are going to be bidding. The upside of this is that contributors can take the cost of the wine off their taxes. The downside: It's a tempting opportunity to unload an overlooked old bottle that's gone stale in your cellar—and get the rep for being a good sport while doing so. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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