Should We Call Him Sommelier General?

Times Staff Writer

Former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was raised in a strict Protestant family that discouraged drinking. Now, California's wine industry is counting on him to help boost sales.

Starr, best known for in- vestigating President Clinton's Whitewater real estate dealings and then finding his way to Monica Lewinsky, has been hired as the head legal strategist to help California vintners end bans on direct wine shipments to consumers in other states.

Starr will help the wine industry shape its arguments and prepare for an expected U.S. Supreme Court challenge to states' control of alcohol sales in coming years.

Twenty-six states outlaw direct-to-consumer sales of wine and other spirits. California wineries are eager to get the bans overturned because they limit the public's access to their products.

"This is an important battle, and I'm honored to be a part of it," Starr said Tuesday from St. John's in the British Virgin Islands, where he was vacationing. "There are limits to state authority."

Wineries "should be able to deal directly with consumers just like any other business," added Starr, who himself enjoys a glass of Chardonnay every now and then.

The issue already has begun to pick up steam.

Federal district courts in New York, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas have struck down those states' bans on wine shipments, and the cases are pending at the appellate level. The likely next stop is the Supreme Court.

Starr, a partner at Washington law firm Kirkland & Ellis, was hired by the nonprofit Coalition for Free Trade, which is backed by the Family Winemakers of California, a trade group of small- to medium-size vintners.

The group would not disclose what Starr is being paid. But coalition attorney Tracey Genesen said his fees could conceivably run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars if the case winds up before the Supreme Court.

Genesen said the wine group tapped the former U.S. solicitor general for his expertise in arguing cases before the high court and for his insight about its justices.

Yet Genesen also acknowledged that the group considered the "national presence" that Starr attained during the Whitewater investigation as a way to draw attention to its concerns.

Alcohol wholesalers, meanwhile, called Starr's hiring a public relations stunt. Many benefit from states' regulation of beverage sales and distribution.

However, they too have hired their own big guns, including former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, who oversaw the Supreme Court appointment of Clarence Thomas in the first Bush administration.

"This is primed for the Supreme Court," said Craig Wolf, general counsel for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. "It's a classic conservative battle between free marketers and the federalists."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday March 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction Starr's location -- An article in Wednesday's Business section about Kenneth W. Starr's hiring as a legal strategist by the California wine industry said he was vacationing at St. John's in the British Virgin Islands. The name of the island is St. John, and it is in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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