By Courtney Cochran
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov’s latest column, “A Befuddlement of Liquor Laws” (Wednesday, January 30), is one of the best commentaries I’ve read on the current crisis state of the American alcohol distribution system. The influential critic comes out of the box swinging when he asserts - just 100 or so words into his column - that “the laws governing direct interstate shipments from wine retailers to consumers are confusing, arcane, inconsistent, often ignored and rarely discussed.” The Beginnings of Progress
Ka-boom! And just like that, Asimov brings to the front and center a controversy that has been simmering for many years and which is finally reaching a boiling point thanks to a number of recent events. To wit, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that states could no longer ban out-of-state wineries from shipping wine directly to in-state consumers if in-state wineries were allowed to do so. This was good news for consumers in states like New York, where the changes that grew out of the ruling mean that folks can finally order mailing-list-only and other hard-to-find wines from wineries in, say, California, and also for wineries themselves, which now have a broader customer base nationwide and take home a bigger piece of the profit pie thanks to their ability to sell direct.
And while there are still holdout states clinging to the archaic system of three-tiered liquor distribution established in the wake of Prohibition (which necessitates that alcohol pass from a producer to a wholesaler/distributor before it reaches retailers, thereby making direct sales illegal), the ruling at least signals progress for wineries and consumers in a number of states. Wine Merchants: Left Out In the Cold
But pretty much total confusion still reigns when it comes to wine sales made by non-winery retailers, who in recent years have been treading in murky waters when it comes to shipping wine across state borders (as have wineries). But, sadly, retailers were not awarded the same new shipping freedoms that wineries were granted after the court’s ruling. And while shipping across state lines is not exactly impossible for retailers, doing so legally requires that they navigate a complex web of dos and don’ts, permit filings and a strange mandate necessitating the establishment of brick and mortar outposts in certain states in order to do so. These hurdles mean that only the most organized and well-funded retailers are able to make a go of inter-state selling; as for the rest, they either do it illegally or they don’t do it at all.Long Way To Go
The sum of all of these regulatory and shipping hang-ups is a system woefully in need of an overhaul. The shocking number of constituents who are financially impacted by the hang-ups - not only the wineries and retailers who are leaving money on the table due to an inability to make sales to customers in holdout states, but also the retailers who spend time and money slogging through the same hang-ups so that they can make inter-state sales - is just as disturbing as the paucity of consumer choice that accompanies them. It’s inexcusable that in a country that prides itself on free trade there are still barriers within our own borders prohibiting us from purchasing goods we’ve made domestically.
The advent of eCommerce and the accompanying debate about inter-state shipping has only drawn into sharper relief problems that have been inherent in our liquor laws for far too long. It’s time that we considered methods to level the playing field for everyone involved, so that businesses may realize their full potential and consumers may get their hands on the wines that they want. This need for consumer choice, after all, is a mandate for something even more important than profits: It’s a call for the best quality of life this country has to offer.