It’s getting to be the end of summer. I admit, while I’m trying to drink dry the last vestiges of the season, coming up with an idea for a late summer wine column has been like drawing wine from a stone. I should be drinking wine on vacation, not worrying about writing about it. But in the middle of the night, on my last day of work before heading up to Southern Maine on a short getaway, I shot straight up in bed with an idea. “I’ll write about how the New Hampshire State Liquor Store is a crock of crap!”
The reason I was hit with this bolt of lightning idea must have been 1) I often stop at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store on the way to Southern Maine in order to stock up for the trip. 2) we were going away on tax-free weekend in Massachusetts. New Hampshire, famously, does not have a sales tax. Live free or die. And 3) I remembered having seen a Facebook post, written by one of Massachusetts’ most important movers and shakers in the world of wines and spirits, Table & Vine’s Michael Quinlan. In the post Quinlan decried the decision of our sister publication, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, to echo New Hampshire’s tax-free marketing propaganda to Massachusetts consumers.
The Associated Press piece in the Gazette had a headline which read, ‘New Hampshire discounting liquor for out-of-state buyers.’ The piece said, “To highlight New Hampshire’s tax-free status and to thank out-of-state customers, the state liquor commission is offering them discounts at its liquor and wine outlet stores. The ‘No Taxation on Our Libations’ sale is providing customers from Massachusetts a 13 percent discount, Vermont a 12 percent discount, and Maine an 11 percent discount, double each state’s sales tax rate.” Sounds amazing! One small oversight. There is already no sales tax on libations in Massachusetts. Call us “Taxachusetts” if you want. But, as Daveed Diggs raps in Hamilton, “imagine what gon’ happen if they try to tax our whiskey.”
There is no sales tax on alcohol in Massachusetts on tax-free weekend. There is no sales tax on alcohol in Massachusetts the weekend after tax-free weekend. And there is no sales tax on alcohol in Massachusetts on the day you are reading this. That being said, this IS Taxachusetts, after all, and you are paying a tax of sorts. There is an excise tax on alcohol in the Commonwealth. Quinlan explains, “The excise tax is on product arriving in Massachusetts. It falls to the distributor. It’s a sliding scale around the alcohol content. A whiskey at 40 percent alcohol has a higher tax than a wine at 12 percent. So, we (Table & Vine) are paying our taxes up front through the importer.” And while you, the consumer, might not be paying the excise tax directly as a tax, Quinlan says, “Ultimately, that cost does get passed onto the consumer because it gets rolled into their cost.” So there is a tax, but it’s hidden and there is no additional sales tax.
One might think that the Massachusetts consumer would be savvy enough not to fall victim to The Granite State’s tax-free propaganda. But no. According to the AP story in the Gazette “a similar promotion last year drew more that 43,100 consumers from 46 states.” And New Hampshire’s government is colluding with the state liquor store in this tax-free marketing conspiracy. In the Celebrate New Hampshire alcoholic beverage marketing magazine I grabbed while entering the doors of the New Hampshire State Liquor Store, I was greeted by a missive from New Hampshire Governor, Christopher T. Sununu. It read “As our residents and frequent visitors know, the Granite State is the best place in the country to live and visit, thanks to our breathtaking scenery, cultural events, historical landmarks, recreational activities, and TAX-FREE SHOPPING!” OK. I added that emphasis. But still. This is in a magazine filled with deals on booze. The store is right over the Massachusetts border. And the governor of our neighbors to the North is not even mentioning that OUR booze is also tax-free in Massachusetts.
All that being said, I was tempted enough to buy a few bottles of wine while I was driving up 95 en route to Vacationland. The Belmonte family also really needed to pee. And the store is right off the highway. I decided to go all white with my wine purchases. I knew there would be plenty of lobster and oysters on my vacation menu. I bought a Louis Jadot Macon Village Blanc, which is Chardonnay from Bordeaux. It was a good price — $11.95, with no tax. I also bought a nice sparkling blanc de blanc from St. Hilaire, the original home of sparkling wine from years before Dom Perignon “invented” Champagne. That story is more fake news from the wine world for a future column. I paid $14.99 for it. A decent price. And because my wife was coming on vacation with me, I bought her favorite, the oft mentioned La Vieille Ferme “chicke wine,” a white Rhone. This was the best deal I got at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store. Two bottles for 12 bucks. How much did these deals have to do with New Hampshire’s sales tax-free status? Nothing.
“Ultimately, I think the misinformation is particularly infuriating because, in large part, if you look at prices on wine, just in terms of our local stores, you’ll see variances,” Quinlan said to me when I called him at Table & Vine during my “vacation” in Kennebunkport. “One store is going to be cheaper than another on specific items. With New Hampshire, they do have some darn good pricing on some items, but in order to try and create this perception of being even better, they market it around this falsehood of the tax.” Point being: Table & Vine has good deals on the wines you want on some days. Some days State Street or Provisions or The Wine Rack may have a better deal on those wines. But every single day at Table & Vine and at Shelburne Falls Cork and at Liquors 44, that wine is sales-tax free. “You can walk into any package store on any day and find items on sale,” Quinlan says, “I get the outlet shopping thing. But there are a lot of good operators locally. Your friends and neighbors work for these operators. Supporting them locally is vital to our local economy.”
Cross the border into New Hampshire to buy legal fireworks and then illegally smuggle them back into the Commonwealth. But when it comes to the allure of the tax-free New Hampshire State Liquor Store, remember that it’s malarky. Enjoy your tax free shopping here. But DO thank New Hampshire for opening the gates for liquor sales on Sunday in the Bay State. Even before you could shop on Sunday anywhere in the Commonwealth, the border towns in Franklin County got a special Sunday sales dispensation. And for those Sundays in Greenfield when the rest of the Commonwealth was dry, I thank you, New Hampshire. Live free or die.
Tweet Monte Belmonte at @montebelmonte.