Government push to limit wine shipping draws fire

wine sellingWine enthusiasts have launched an all-out war on legislation under consideration in Washington, D.C., to limit their direct access to wineries' offerings. The goal of HR5034 is ostensibly to allow states to control whether alcohol -- including wine -- can be shipped into or out of state, and to reap the tax benefits of any interstate commerce.

That sounds reasonable enough to many, particularly during a prolonged recession, but beneath the surface there are many off notes, including questions about who really benefits and how smaller wineries ignored by most distribution networks are supposed to cope. Some of the anger has bled into two Facebook pages, "STOPHR5034" and "Free the Grapes!" -- with a combined 21,000 members and counting.

One recent poster lampooned the Congressional debate with her own quandary: "My debate was between a bottle of Karl's Blend Chardonnay (beautiful small California bottling blended by Ronn Wiegand, MW) and Robert Oatley Vineyards Pinot Grigio. I went for the 'easier to get' irony and toasted with the PG."

Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia -- which offers courses ranging from Wine 101 to Sommelier Smackdown -- considers HR5034 no laughing matter, calling it a "corrupt piece of legislation."

"The middlemen, the national and regional alcohol distributors, have always had a great deal of money and influence, and HR5034 is the latest example of that," Wallace said. "Direct to consumer shipping helps small wineries get their product to their fans. This is something the middlemen, who right now control almost all distribution, is trying desperately to prevent."

Many state laws regulating wine shipping already exist, but Wallace said smaller wineries have been "chipping away at" those rules over time through lawsuits and other means. Their efforts to sell direct have been dramatically aided by the Internet.

David Keuhner of Virginia's Destination Cellars, a sort of mega sommelier who procures high-end wines for his wine club members, agreed. Direct wine buying is a mainstay of his business, so he can easily see the perspective of wineries, particularly those that can't attract the attention of distributors.

"Think about it: If you have the opportunity to sell your wine direct, establish a relationship with the consumer and make more money, wouldn't you want to do it?" Keuhner asked. "Especially if the wholesalers/distributors aren't helping
you sell your wine?"

Though filled with less-than-digestible language, this is the way the legislation explains one crucial aspect: "Notwithstanding that the State or territorial law may burden interstate commerce or may be inconsistent with an Act of the Congress, the State law shall be upheld unless the party challenging the State or territorial law establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the law has no effect on the promotion of temperance, the establishment or maintenance of orderly alcoholic beverage markets, the collection of alcoholic beverage taxes, the structure of the state alcoholic beverage distribution system, or the restriction of access to alcoholic beverages by those under the legal drinking age."

It's that last phrase (italics added for emphasis above) that particularly irks Keuhner. Seriously?

"I can remember being 17 years old and certainly not grabbing a bottle of $100 cabernet to chug down! Perhaps a Bud Light," he said. "But seriously if I'm 17 years old, I'm not going online, buying a bottle of $50+ bottle of wine from a winery, waiting by my door for the delivery so I can party on Saturday night!"
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