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Utahns have used ballot initiatives to legalize medical cannabis, tackle tax reform and expand health care for the state’s poorest residents.
What will the next grassroots effort be?
One alcohol industry insider turned author believes it’s time residents use their voting power to privatize liquor sales in Utah.
This wine warrior — who recently quit his job as a wine broker — is giving a financial push to the movement by donating 10% of sales from his self-published book, “Mormons, Merlot and the Utah Liquor Monopoly: Selling Wine in Zion,” to the effort. (An additional 10% would go to the Utah hospitality industry impacted by COVID-19.)
The nearly 500-page manifesto, written under the pen name Spartacus Falanghina, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties of selling booze in a state heavily influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The idea of privatization was “probably insurmountable or impossible years ago,” Spartacus told The Salt Lake Tribune. “But with all the people that are moving into the state and the way the demographics are changing, there’s a lot of people that will understand that this business isn’t right.”
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has been criticized, for instance, for its low employee wages, poor selections and high prices.
“We’ve just got to get it to that point,” he added “where we’re having an open conversation and taking the steps to to show that we’re serious.”
Warrior for liquor privatization
For his nom de guerre, he chose Spartacus — a nod to the European slave who helped lead a revolt over the Roman government — and Falanghina, an Italian grape that grows in tight clusters, which shield the fruit against the elements.
Together, he said, the name represents the powerful army that would be needed to gather signatures and bring liquor privatization to a vote.
Spartacus said he has been working on his book “on and off for several years,” adding alcohol history, personal anecdotes and wine trends to make it compelling to readers in Utah and from out of state.
When it was published in 2020 and he launched a website and social media accounts, he opted for anonymity — though The Tribune verified his industry credentials — because he didn’t want to jeopardize his job or his employer’s status with the DABC.
He’d like to remain anonymous, at least for the time being. His family knows about his alter ego, however, as do a few restaurant owners and other industry friends who participated in a video — filmed before the coronavirus pandemic — designed to bring attention to the privatization effort.
Selling to the DABC
Large sections of the book are about the job of a liquor broker — the middle person in the alcohol supply chain. Wine, beer and spirit producers hire them to place products in stores.
In Utah, brokers have just one customer — the state, Spartacus explained. “I would give them the paperwork and the samples and try to get them to sell it in the liquor stores.”
In recent years, the job became nearly impossible — especially for those selling smaller boutique brands. Large national labels often are given general distribution throughout all liquor stores, while lesser-known products are placed in only a handful of stores.
“You can have the greatest product in the world, with all the top ratings and press,” he said, but no one can enjoy it “if the state doesn’t list the product.”
The arrangement grew even more difficult in 2020, when Utah purged 900 items from its liquor inventory.
“We live in this time where there are all the beautiful wines from across the world,” he said, “but, in Utah, we are relegated to just a small modicum of products that a state agency tells us we can have.”
That limited selection — and the 88% markup that the state charges on spirits — encourages bootlegging.
“Whenever somebody from Utah is spending their money in another state, they are supporting the infrastructure of that state,” he said. “We’re paying their taxes so they can build roads, so they can build bridges. And that’s counterproductive.”
Spartacus blames the LDS Church’s influence over Utah lawmakers, the vast majority of whom are members of a faith that preaches abstinence from alcohol.
“They don’t go into the liquor stores and don’t have a need for the product,” he said. “So as long as there is a 4% to 5% increase [in liquor sales] every year, they think the DABC is running as smooth as ever.”
Utah could follow the Wyoming liquor model
Utahns might look to neighboring states, like Wyoming, when crafting a ballot initiative, Spartacus said. The Cowboy State, for example, keeps control of wholesale distribution — and collects taxes — but allows private stores to sell the liquor.
“We could have a system where you don’t get rid of the DABC,” he said. “But you get rid of the state-run liquor stores.”
That, of course, means the state would likely have to give up some tax revenue, which topped the half-billion mark for the first time in fiscal 2019-20.
But Utah also might see long-term gains in other areas, he said. “With bootlegging curbed and retail shops making money, that is going to pump more money into the infrastructure.”
Whatever the process privatization takes, Spartacus knows it’s not going to happen overnight.
“Change takes time,” he said. “I mean how long did it take medical marijuana to get through? A couple years, and even then it’s still being modified and looked at.”