Four and ½ years after Granholm vs. Heald, the Supreme Court ruling that was supposed to create wine shipping liberty for all, wine shipping is still a tangled mess requiring a consumer movement to gently remind those that we put in power that they are merely functionaries for the will of the people.

Speaking of tangled mess, in the pantheon of wine knowledge, my respect goes not to the gentleman who can name all of the Bordeaux chateaus from the Right Bank, but instead it goes to the person that can parse the legalities of wine shipping from state to state.

Wine liberty and justice_PPIt’s an unfortunate fact that if you’re into wine more esoteric than California Cab, you need wine chops AND the research skills of a paralegal to make sense of whether or not you can actually have access to that wine in your state.

In the intervening years in between 2005 and now, much progress has been made for a small domestic winery to directly ship its wine to a consumer in a state.  And, while much progress has been made, much more needs to be made. Oft forgotten in the giddiness of finally being able to receive a domestic winery wine club shipment is the fact that there are 1000’s of wines, imported wines, still unavailable to much of the United States.  This is another small battle that also requires consumer support – the ability for a wine retailer in, say, New York, to legally ship to a consumer in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio or elsewhere.

You see, I have a growing interest in this.  As my palate matures, my interests take their ongoing evolution, and I learn more about the mechanisms of politics, I begin to see that politics, particularly wine politics, isn’t so much about reason as much as it is about protectionist self-interest – specifically, distributors protecting their business from competition and wayward consumer dollars.  But, therein lies the rub for consumers – if I want to buy specific wines like Mosel Rieslings from wine importer Terry Theise, that aren’t represented by a distributor in my state, it means I need to source the wine from a wine retailer who does carry them.  And then I find out, that, unfortunately, it’s illegal for a New York retailer to sell and ship to my state.

The reasons the special interest protectionist groups give for protecting the illegality of shipping to me are valid — if we lived in Stalin’s Russia.

Drunk driving and protecting our youth from underage drinking is their song, a song I won’t attempt sing.  I will point out, however, as hundreds of people have done before, that if drunk driving charges from those intoxicated on wine represent 1% of such arrests, I’d be surprised.  Likewise, the sweet tooth finicky palates of our teenagers are surely being saved from the need to make a credit card transaction, wait for shipping and then reveling in the pencil lead nuance of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, right?

Nope, the real reason I can’t get these wines is because $100 bucks spent having a New York retailer ship Mosel Riesling to me means that I won’t spend that money buying wine locally, at a retailer and, ultimately, the local distributor that supplies them.

In order to combat this injustice, separate from, but analogous to the consumer fight relevant to domestic winery shipping, is The Specialty Wine Retailers Association (SWRA).  It is a non-profit organization that represents the interests of retailers and their ability to ship wine to consumers across the country.

Free the grapesWhile consumer-based organizations like “Free the Grapes” have done much good for organizing consumer engagement and mind share for domestic winery shipping issues, more work needs to be done on the retail side of the equation.

My call-to-action here is simple.  We all are involved in cause marketing of one sort or another whether its school fundraising, Girl Scout cookies, breast cancer awareness or something more local and more personal.  There is scarcely a person alive that isn’t involved in changing something as it exists today into a form that makes for a better tomorrow.  It’s practically the American way.  Given that, and given that I presume you to be passionate for wine if you’re reading this, my request for you is to simply make yourself more intelligently aware of the gross misconduct that occurs related to our wine laws, all of our wine laws, including the ability for retailers to ship where a customer resides, even if outside of state lines.

Consider it your personal accountability to wine – like your kid’s Girl Scout cookie quota.

Read Notes on Wine Distribution, a periodically updated compendium of wine shipping progress, read the ShipCompliant blog, and join the SWRA Facebook Fan Page.

All action starts with literacy, and if you’re literate about the issues you’re likely going to be spurred into action, just as I have been.  “For the people, by the people” means, again, that our politicians are functionaries for the people, not deliverers of glad tidings for those that have an interest in keeping their slice of our American apple pie.

9 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia

    Shipping definitely is an issue. But here in New York, we can’t get wine into grocery stores.

    Jeff, one other way for people to become literate about the issue is to take a look at the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

    As long as a state stays within the rules of that amendment, there is little that can change things, save a BIG lobbying effort against distributor money. The Granholm case was decided by the Supremes with an opt-out in it that particularly fits within the constitutional framework of the 21s Amendment.

    Plus, the Supremes have consistently opined that alcohol is a special product, needing special constitutional consideration–read that to mean “restrictions.”

    People fighting to do something on this issue need to know the constitutional roadblocks. The alcohol trade knows them well, and exploits them well.

  2. Tish

    Thanks for calling our attention to a subject that is easily forgotten in this Golden Age of wine. I have always felt that unless there is some real hardship felt in the areas of the most intensive wine consumption, it will be hard to change some of the odious restrictions. Worth keeping at it; but as Thomas notes, understanding just how complicated things are is important.

  3. Jeff Carroll


    Nice piece. I totally agree that the first step is education. Free the Grapes! and SWRA are doing a good job with that, but I think we can all pitch in to help inform and educate consumers and lawmakers. For example, we can all help open up Maryland for wineries AND retailers by encouraging our friends in Maryland to check out Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws at . The opposition lobby is daunting for sure, but consumer awareness continues to grow, and the walls are cracking in many states to say the least. Three new states opened up for wineries that were previously prohibited this year alone (Kansas, Tennessee and Maine). I just don’t see any change at the federal level happening any time soon. So, we have to address this challenge one state battle at a time.

    Another important component that is worth mentioning is litigation. The SWRA and Coalition for Free Trade are both doing a good job of taking the ongoing Granholm battle to the courts. In Massachusetts, arguments for an important appeal will happen in November to establish the constitutionality of capacity caps that could ripple into other states. In Texas, retailers are fighting a key battle to gain precedent for retailer shipping. Wins in the courts and precedent play an important role in not only opening up new states, but also in amending existing and creating new statutes without de-facto (non-facial) discrimination.

    It’s a long battle that won’t end any time soon. Education and awareness are key, as is supporting the groups that are on the front lines.

  4. Thomas Pellechia

    Jeff Carroll is right. Nothing will happen at the federal level. It is a state by state matter, which is exactly how the Congress and the Supremes see it.

    The only thing that lobbyists need to be aware of is that anything they lobby for must comply with the 21st Amendment’s call for state sovereignty over alcohol regulations as long as that sovereignty does not discriminate against another state’s industry through protectionism.

    In this matter, the Congress, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court is having it both ways–they each claim that inter-state commerce cannot be controlled or distorted by individual states, but they also view alcohol as an exception to that rule. Instead of claiming it a complete exception, the court claims that when a state makes the exception it must be across the board–no protectionism.

    It’s truly a distortion of the Dormant Commerce Clause, no matter how many times the Supremes say that it isn’t. The so-called originalists seem always to find a way to disregard original intent when it suits their ideology. When the commerce clause was inserted, I don’t believe that alcohol was treated as a special commodity needing special restrictions within and across state borders.

  5. Gretchen

    As a Tennessee resident, I’m big into this issue. Until July, it was a felony to ship into the state and we still don’t have wine in grocery stores. It was a miracle that the gov’t is now allowing (limited/restricted) wine shipments in, but it came down to one thing: revenue. They figured out how much money they could make from permit applications and renewals and cha-ching, a bill was passed.

  6. Tom Wark

    Just so it’s clear, today only 13 states allow out-of-state wine stores (not wineries) to ship wine into their state and to consumers. Among the states where it is outlawed: CA, WA, NY, TX, NJ, MA, IL.

    The problem was that when the post-Supreme Court decision legislative frenzy to open up states occurred, wine retailers were left out of the laws that opened direct shipping. Why? As a tier they were not organized. They were not as sympathetic a group as wineries, retailer shipping was often sacrificed when back room deals were made to craft new shipping laws.

    This is a state by state battle as others have noted. It’s unlikely that the congress will shape a national direct shipping law.