The recent media blitz on the Jenna Bush incident is proof positive that there are many opinions regarding alcohol—whether the issue be the legal drinking age or the right to sell alcohol over the Internet. And Texas exceeds all other states in fuzzy alcohol laws; the pieces of legislation and the lines dividing wet from dry are hazy at best. The Texas Safety Council argues in favor of Texas alcohol laws, fighting against alcohol abuse, while the Wine Industry of Texas argues for the freedom to sell its product in its home state. We’ve provided some simple (or not so simple) facts on the issues to help you weave your way through the maze.

The skinny: What’s the law?

Counties in Texas generally fall into four categories: (1) wholly dry, (2) only 4 percent beer is legal, (3) 14 percent or less alcoholic beverages are legal, or (4) distilled spirits are legal (among those are counties in which the sale of mixed beverages is legal in all or part of the county, counties wholly wet, and counties that are dry in part). Sound confusing? It is. These categories are by no means set in stone.

An amendment to the state constitution made liquor by the drink legal in Texas in 1970—the first time in fifty years. The sale of liquor by the drink was made legal in cities or counties when approved in local-option elections. Alcohol laws are primarily controlled by state regulations, although local-option elections can affect the sale of alcohol. If a city is in a dry county, it does not have the power to become wet. If a city is in a wet county, it has the power to make parts dry by local option—for example, sometimes certain locations in a wet area are dry because they are in close proximity to a public hospital or a church.

The dirt: How dry is dry?

A handful of counties serve as stellar examples of the complicated alcohol laws and regulations in the Lone Star State.

Brown County. Distilled spirits are legal in parts of this county, which had 159 Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) arrests in 1999, the latest year for which data are available.

Collin County. The county that is home to Plano is wet when it comes to the sale of beer and wine to-go but dry for the sale of on-premises liquor and off-premises liquor. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is sprinkled with areas and precincts that are dry, partially dry, and wet. One way restaurants and clubs can offer alcohol is by selling patrons a membership card. A private club does not require a vote by the population, so patrons can drink in participating clubs located in dry areas.

Erath County. This wholly dry county, which had 240 DWI arrests in 1999, is the home of Tarleton State University.

Hardeman County. Some locals drive to the nearest liquor store, which happens to be in Oklahoma, to purchase alcohol.

Hays County. Distilled spirits are legal in this county, which is home to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. The sale of mixed beverages is legal in San Marcos and a few other precincts. In accordance to the allowable hours of sale and consumption of alcohol as cited in chapter 105 of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, bars close at midnight on weekdays and at one in the morning on Friday and Saturday. Only thirty minutes away, in Austin, bars close at two in the morning every night. The state allows some communities to extend their allowable hours.

Jones County. Although this county is wholly dry, it had 95 DWI arrests in 1999.

Lubbock County. This partially dry county is home to Texas Tech University. A strip of liquor stores, on a stretch of Tahoka Highway (US Highway 87) and located outside the City of Lubbock, is frequented by many college students. Within Lubbock, the restaurants, bars, and clubs sell alcohol, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) is rampant. Minors who drink are likely to get a Minor in Possession, which is a misdemeanor. It is a common practice in clubs that 21-year-olds wear wristbands and minors have X’s drawn on their hands.

The grapevine: What are people talking about?

On October 6, 2000, Congress passed the Twenty-first Amendment Enforcement Act, giving states more power over alcoholic shipments to consumers in their states. Since then, Texas (among other states) has been debating the issue of alcohol sales on the Internet. Those against Internet alcohol sales believe the Internet encourages and facilitates minors’ purchasing alcohol (currently the law in Texas works to protect dry counties, to ensure that taxes are paid on wine products, and to fight bootlegging). According to Austin Keith, the owner of Odessa-based Pinkie’s liquor stores, there is a problem with the direct sale of alcohol on the Internet: “Would direct shipping allow a dry area to become a wet area without a vote of consent?” But there are others who feel it will help business. Free The Grapes, an organization based in Napa, California, claims that buying beer or wine on the Internet is a good way to find rare products that are not available in one’s hometown.

This issue is a familiar one to Texas wineries. Wines produced in Texas are having trouble making it to the shelves in the stores of their own state. To combat that problem, the state’s wineries joined forces this legislative session to lobby two points: (1) to allow consumers to purchase wine on the Internet and (2) to allow wineries to ship their products directly to consumers. Twelve states have reciprocal shipping laws, blocking Texas wineries from having access to potential customers in those states. Most of the wine sold in Texas is imported or from out of state. Four companies control the distribution of distilled spirits and 85 percent of the wine wholesale market in Texas—Galzer’s Distributing Company of Dallas, Republic Beverage Company of Houston, Block Distributing of San Antonio, and Longhorn Liquors of Arlington. If your wine isn’t fancied by one of these corporations, you won’t find it on the shelves.

The list: Which counties in Texas are wholly dry?

Van Zandt
(source for the list of dry counties: 1998-1999 Texas Almanac)