Wine shipping comes to court
The arcane issue of shipping wine direct to consumers across state lines in the U.S. is breaking into the general news media this week, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments tomorrow in a case involving disputes in three states: New York, Michigan and Virginia.
The issue comes as no surprise to wine enthusiasts, of course, particularly those of us who live in places where the law forbids us to purchase wine direct from producers or retailers except for licensed retail stores in our own state or province. I've been covering the debate in the Wine Advisor for years, most recently in the article, "Supreme wine decision," last June 4, which is online in the Wine Advisor archives at
I'll refer you to that article for more background, but with the debate back in the news this week, let's take a quick point-by-point look at the issues involved.
What's the question before the court? Simply put: May states constitutionally forbid their citizens to buy alcoholic beverages directly from out-of-state sources?
Is it really that simple? Of course not. Two fundamental constitutional principles are in conflict. On one hand, the 21st Amendment (Repeal of Prohibition) clearly assigns responsibility for "the transportation of alcoholic beverages" to the states. On the other, many states' policy of permitting local wineries to ship their products within the state while barring outside wineries from doing the same appears to go against well-established principles of fair trade in interstate commerce. The issue comes before the Supreme Court because lower courts have reached different interpretations.
Who are the power players? The nation's wine and liquor distributors, with the powerful Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc. (WSWA) as primary lobbyist and spokesman, has spent considerable money and legislative effort in support of the status quo. Its member organizations have a huge financial stake in limiting wine and liquor sales to the established "three-tier" system of licensed distributors and retailers in every state, a legal monopoly that they will fight to keep. They've swayed regulators in some states with the dubious arguments that Internet wine sales may result in the loss of tax revenue or make it easier for minors to purchase alcohol. Some large winery companies with national and international distribution also reportedly quietly oppose any change that might benefit smaller producers.
On the free-trade side we find an active but less well-heeled coalition of smaller, family-owned wineries, which argue that it's difficult to impossible for them to break into the established system of wholesale distribution, and point out that virtually no other consumer industry suffers under similar regulation. Many wine enthusiasts and collectors strongly favor change, hoping for the increased choice and possible price benefits that competition might foster. A few libertarian and pro-commerce "think tanks" have issued papers in support of free trade, and a well-publicized study by the Federal Trade Commission argued that an end to restrictions on distribution would yield economic benfits for the wine industry, Internet retailers and the national economy.
When will the Court decide? If matters follow their usual course, the Supreme Court will debate in secret during the winter and publish its opinion sometime in the spring of 2005.
What happens then? It depends on how the decision turns, of course, and most experts calculate that there's a close balance between "federalists" on the court, who may be persuaded by the state's rights argument of the wholesalers, and those more likely to be inclined to find for free trade. In short, it could go either way.
Frankly, despite some hopeful opinions expressed by advocacy groups, I don't see immediate changes, either way. If the Court finds for the status quo, the states that already permit interstate wine shipping through "reciprocity" agreements won't stop doing so (although the possibility of well financed legislative efforts by the wholesalers to change that can't be ruled out).
But even if the Court rules that states may not discriminate between in-state and out-of-state vendors, that's a long step from permitting unrestricted direct sales to individuals. States could still strictly regulate or bar all wine shipping to consumers; and it's difficult to imagine any Supreme Court interpretation that would prevent this, or that would deter the wholesale lobby from pushing for it.
It's really all about the Internet, of course. Until online E-commerce grew to become a competitive threat, interstate shipping wasn't much of an issue, and state laws against it were only sporadically and casually enforced. Disregard of state shipping laws remains widespread today - I'm not ashamed to admit that I defy my own state's shipping laws and encourage others to do so. And whatever the Court decides, it's not going to be easy to pack the genie back in the bottle.
TALK ABOUT WINE ONLINE
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Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Buy wine online?
As the Supreme Court hears arguments on the legality of shipping wine and other alcoholic beverages across state lines in the U.S. this week, we thought it would be a good time to find out what's actually happening in the real world as far as wine-shipping is concerned.
Accordingly, wherever in the world you live, this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth asks a simple, two-part question: Is wine shipping legal where you live? And, regardless of the legality, do you do it? To cast your vote, click to the Voting Booth,
California Wine Club:
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Broadbent Rainwater Madeira ($13.99)
Madeira, warm and luscious in both its dry and sweet variations, makes an excellent wine for winter and the holiday season. This modest but delicious item from the respected Broadbent firm is an excellent choice for December sipping. Clear dark reddish-copper in color, it breathes classic and very appealing Madeira scents of dried dates and figs and mixed nuts. Smooth and gently sweet, it's not a "sticky" dessert wine but shows good fresh-fruit sweetness built on Madeira's sturdy core of tart, lemony acidity. U.S. importer: Broadbent Selections Inc., San Francisco. (Dec. 5, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: We enjoyed it by itself as an after-dinner treat, but it would have gone well with a cheese plate, or echoing the wine's aroma characteristics with a selection of dried fruits and nuts.
VALUE: You would be hard pressed to find any other dessert wine of this quality and elegance in the lower teens. Madeira in general is under-priced and a consistent value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Even a lighter-style Madeira like Rainwater is made to last, and last, and last. Drink it now, or save it for your grandchildren.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
Wine Grape Varietal Table:
The season's top wine gift
Here's one of the most innovative wine-education products I've seen in a long time: Steve and Deborah De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Table displays a world of wine grape varieties in a bright, useful display that would make a perfect addition to your library or wine room ... or, for those in the business, an eye-catching attention-getter on the wall of your wine shop.
This quality fine-art poster - accompanied with a densely-packed, informative pocket-size book - displays nearly 200 wine-grape varieties in a format that should draw a nostalgic "Yeah!" from anyone who's ever sat in a high-school or college chemistry classroom: It is modeled after the classic periodic table of the elements.
Boxed in a large, sturdy cardboard container, ready for gift-wrapping, this set would make a good gift for any wine enthusiast on your list; and if your recipient (even yourself) qualifies as a true wine "geek," then he's just got to have it. Wine accessories just don't get any more geeky than this ... and that's a compliment.
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Words About Port: Madeira For The Holidays
Schaefer on Wine: Foley Estates ups the ante
Dave McIntyre's WineLine: Holiday wines
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Wine way off the beaten path (Dec. 3, 2004)
Wine stars in Sideways (Dec. 1, 2004)
Wine books for Santa's list (Nov. 29, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Turkey-prosciutto stacks with cheese (Dec. 2, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Dec. 6, 2004