Virginia wine-shipping ban declared unconstitutional

In what appears to be a severe blow to the wine-and-liquor wholesale industry's efforts to discourage the direct shipment of wine to U.S. consumers, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams has declared unconstitutional the long-standing laws that had banned such shipment in Virginia.

Judge Williams's Friday ruling is "far-reaching," said Matt Cooper, attorney for a group of consumers who had challenged the Virginia law. He said the decision "has handed a major setback to wine and beer wholesalers in Virginia as well as in other States."

Williams found the Virginia law unconstitutional because it discriminated against non-Virginia wineries and breweries in their efforts to sell products to Virginia residents, thus violating the Constitution's Interstate Commerce clause.

"We are very pleased that Judge Williams has restored to citizens of Virginia their constitutional right to buy wine and beer from out-of-state wineries, breweries or sellers of alcoholic beverages and to have shipped to them shipped directly to them," Hale said in a press release. "It was worth all of the hard work and effort. Hopefully the federal courts in other states which are considering similar challenges will learn from Judge Williams' ... thorough and enlightened analysis."

However, Hale and others acknowledged that the ruling isn't likely to mean that Virginia wine lovers will immediately be able to start ordering rare wines from out-of-state vendors.

"As a practical matter," Hale said, "although Judge Williams' Order was 'entered' by the court clerk on March 29, on Monday the Office of the Virginia Attorney General will file an ExParte Motion for a "Stay," which will ask the Court maintain the status quo until an appeal can be heard. Theoretically, the case could go all the way up to the United States Supreme Court before there is a final resolution, and such a stay would remain in effect until the case was conclusively resolved. Accordingly, your readers in Virginia should not bother trying to order any wine at this time."

But the decision remains important, he said, because of the message it sends to other states where consumers are also challenging bans to the direct shipment of wine. For example, Judge Williams states unequivocally that another judge's ruling in an Indiana case was "just plain wrong, and that courts do have the power to strike down state alcoholic beverage laws that violate the Commerce Clause. In other words, the states do not have complete control over how they regulate the importation alcohol into their states."