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Crushing Victory

updated 07/14/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/2003 01:00AM

Juanita Swedenburg may not look like a fire-breathing radical. But in wine-drinking circles, that's exactly what she is. "My ancestors," she says, "fought the tax on tea."

And what she's fighting, with startling success, is the multibillion-dollar wholesale wine industry. The owner of a 15-acre vineyard in Middleburg, Va., Swedenburg, 77, got tired of not being able to ship her Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other wines to customers calling from outside Virginia, a practice banned by Prohibition-era laws against direct shipment of alcohol over state lines. "It made me so cross to turn people down," she says.

Thus her 1999 federal lawsuit against New York, one of 30 states with similar restrictions. Last year, as a result of her suit, New York's law was declared unconstitutional—a Goliath-size victory that has since spurred her home state and 23 others to rescind their bans. Credited by most as being the catalyst in this issue, "Juanita stepped forward very boldly in the fight for free trade," says Ken Starr of "White-water fame, now a lobbyist for the nonprofit Coalition for Free Trade. "She is on the front line."

Swedenburg and her husband, Wayne, 76, both retired Foreign Service officers, bought their Virginia farm in 1976. They sell about 30,000 bottles of wine a year, a figure which should rise as bans on direct shipping fall. Still, the battle is far from over. The New York verdict has been appealed, and the case may go to the Supreme Court. That, says Swedenburg, is just sour grapes. "Someone from Maine who would like to buy a wine from Virginia should be able to get it," she says. "That's what makes America America."

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