Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fate of fine wine in Arthur Goldman's case is uncertain

Wine cellar of lawyer Arthur Goldman. (HANDOUT)
Wine cellar of lawyer Arthur Goldman. (HANDOUT)
Wine cellar of lawyer Arthur Goldman. (HANDOUT) Gallery: Fate of fine wine in Arthur Goldman's case is uncertain

The lawyer who peddled fine wines from his Main Line home made out with probation and community service.

His wine might not fare as well.

Police want to destroy the 2,426 bottles they seized in January from Arthur Goldman's Malvern home, the typical fate for bootleg booze.

But this collection is not a typical bounty.

It's far more valuable.

Goldman is fighting to keep it, and wine enthusiasts say the thought of its being dumped is hard to swallow, an example of how Pennsylvania's antiquated liquor laws frustrate connoisseurs and seed a black market for alcohol unavailable in state stores.

"It's not like we're talking about cocaine or heroin here," said Tom Wark, executive director for the American Wine Consumer Coalition. "We're talking about a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2012 vintage."

Pennsylvania's liquor laws are among the strictest nationwide - and the least kind to wine lovers. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that ban wineries from shipping directly to customers and one of two, Utah being the other, where the government has complete control over the sale of liquor and wine. Supporters of privatization have pushed the issue for years to no avail.

Goldman, a 50-year-old lawyer with a practice in Paoli, was charged with breaking Internet wine-sales laws and illegally reselling his purchases.

On an e-mail list, Goldman kept about 20 people apprised of his offerings. One of his potential buyers was an undercover police officer. The wines he had in stock and could order, most unavailable in the state, were detailed on a 97-page list.

Police said officers made several undercover buys, including at Goldman's home, where he showed them a wine cellar under construction, with floor-to-ceiling racks flanking a stone island. About 90 boxes of wine were stacked on the floor, police said.

Officials seized all of it - estimated to be worth at least $125,000 - and charged Goldman with misdemeanors of illegally selling, purchasing, and possessing or transporting liquor. A prosecutor at the Chester County District Attorney's Office at the time described it as a "highly organized, high-volume illegal business operation to make money."

Goldman's lawyer, Peter Kratsa, says officials got it all wrong.

"It was more 15 to 20 people who liked wine like Art, who he would get the wine for," he said.

He stressed that Goldman is grateful for the sentence agreed to last Friday at Chester County Court of Common Pleas, which will allow him to have his record expunged after two years of probation.

But Kratsa said Goldman was charging only his estimated cost, equating it to making a liquor run over state lines and charging friends for the gas.

That, too, is illegal in Pennsylvania, but certainly doesn't warrant seizing a collection worth $125,000, Kratsa said.

Sgt. Dan Steele, district commander at the Philadelphia Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement office that oversaw the investigation, said it does. He said every bottle is contraband because each was offered for sale.

Kratsa said the Attorney General's Office, which is handling the forfeiture and declined to comment on the matter, would have an uphill battle to prove that's the case.

He said a majority of the wine was Goldman's own collection and "never would have been sold." He added that most was bought while Goldman lived in New Jersey, where it is legal to have wine shipped to your home.

 

Underground market

Pennsylvania's laws are more onerous.

"Everything is illegal in Pennsylvania," Wark said. "It is by far the worst state to live in if you're a wine lover."

He said the state's laws create a prime climate for an underground market because so little of the wine available in the United States can be purchased at Pennsylvania liquor stores.

Joe Roberts, a nationally known wine writer from Downingtown who blogs at 1winedude.com, said he was surprised when he heard of Goldman's arrest - but only because the concept of a black market for wine, which had never occurred to him, suddenly seemed "so obvious."

"I just couldn't believe we haven't seen something like that before," he said. "Of course there's going to be a market for this kind of stuff."

Putting aside the issue of whether Goldman was profiting or just sharing a passion, both Roberts and Wark had a similar response: pity.

"That's a great wine," Wark said, as if pausing to mentally swirl, sniff, and sip the 2004 Radio-Coteau La Neblina Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, one of the varieties that agents bought from Goldman. "I haven't had the 2004. But I've had more recent vintages. I bet the 2004 would be really interesting."

If it is, Goldman will never know. Unless he buys a new bottle. Kratsa said he won't fight to get back what was sold to officers. He said he will talk to the Attorney General's Office about the rest soon.

Rather than having all of it destroyed, Kratsa said, Goldman is open to having some sold and the proceeds donated to charity.

But that's not allowed under state law, according to Renee Martin, a spokeswoman from the Attorney General's Office. Unlike with other kinds of forfeitures, such as cars that can be donated to a nonprofit or diamonds that can be sold with the money supporting law enforcement agencies, there is only one option with alcohol: destroying it.

If the office formally seeks forfeiture, Kratsa said, he intends to take the matter to trial.

That's quite an effort for wine that might not have aged well in the months since it was seized.

It took police 18 hours to catalog each bottle and load the bottles into a truck the night of the seizure, when the temperature dipped to 6 degrees.

Since then, according to Steele, it has been stored in an evidence room. He declined to say where and added that he couldn't comment on its "consumability."

"At this point, the state police do not believe there is an obligation to store it in a climate-controled environment," he said. "But it is being secured at room temperature."

 


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

 

Tricia L. Nadolny Inquirer Staff Writer
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