Faces of the UI: Law student v. wine laws

BY ZHI XIONG | APRIL 17, 2009 7:31 AM

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With Iowa’s growing wine industry, one would think Dionysus himself might replace the Green Giant as the state’s patron God any day.

It could take a lawyer to make it happen — specifically Jessica Reese, a third-year law student who recently took on Iowa’s archaic wine-shipping laws. In a recent edition of the Iowa Law Review, she shows the state may soon be the last in the nation clinging to native-wine statutes the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

“The state can be seen as a major player in the wine industry,” she said. “But we need to bring the law up-to-date.”

Reese, 25, grew up in Gladbrook, Iowa, a town of 1,000 known for its eccentric collection of matchstick sculptures. After studying journalism and marketing at the UI, she is becoming the only lawyer in the family. Her e-mail inbox frequently receives cartoons and clips poking fun at the profession (never mind Tuesday was National Be Kind to Lawyers Day).

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No one in her family claims the oenophile label, including Reese — she still doesn’t have a favorite kind and can’t tell whether Iowa’s wines are indeed too sweet. Her interest in the topic began in 2007, when she scored a summer internship working for the state Attorney General’s Office.

Her job entailed research for an attorney working on a project for the Alcoholic Beverages Division.

She found the wine-shipping laws “strangely fascinating.” Back at school, Reese started her “note” — a bit of an understated name for student writers’ legal analyses — which took nine months to research.

On Wednesday, Reese ran into her protégé, second-year law student Anna Timmerman, a student writer learning to become a managing editor. Timmerman praised Reese’s diplomatic approach when the two worked together.

“She never made me feel like ‘Oh, that was stupid,’ ” Timmerman said. “Even if she found a mistake.”
With graduation at hand, her former cubicle already has new occupants. Reese will soon have a last look at the black-and-white portraits of former editorial board members lining the walls of the Boyd Law Building’s lower level.

“I love the ones from the ’70s,” she said, a bulky North Face backpack slung over a puff-sleeved blouse and dangling bead earrings. “Especially the plaid suits.”

History also fueled her interest in researching the wine laws, Reese said. She spent hours poring — and sneezing — over ponderous law codes from a century ago.

“I loved pulling the dusty books off shelves,” she said. “It ignited my allergies, but it was more interesting than the sterile process of looking things up on the Internet.”

Reese found the state has a tradition of protecting its native wine products. Vintners within the state pay no additional tax and do not have a limit on the volume of wine they can ship directly to consumers. These restrictions apply to out-of-state wineries, however.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided this system unconstitutional in the 2005 case Granholm v. Heald. The court held states cannot discriminate against out-of-state wineries in favor of in-state wineries.

Legislators found a challenge balancing their constituents’ varied and staunch interests. There’s the premise of encouraging local vintners to make unique products, but the same wineries wanted to expand their customer radius beyond state borders. Lawmakers also worried underage customers could abuse the direct shipment method.

Eventually the states gave in to interstate commerce, throwing out most limits to out-of-state shipping. By late 2008, only Iowa and New Mexico were left.

“No one’s challenged this yet, but it could happen,” she mused.

While she said the Legislature is no doubt bogged down with making laws and more pressing matters, she hopes loosening the state’s wine regulations will ultimately help the state economy.

Reese, who will move to Minneapolis and take the bar exam this summer, can no longer quaff wine without thinking of the industry’s complex workings.

“My boyfriend said he can’t take me to wineries anymore,” she said. “I’ll go up there and start talking to the owner.”

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