Direct Shipping: The Battle Joined

Some new developments on the direct
shipping front: Connecticut and New York have now enacted legislation
allowing out-of-state wineries to ship directly to their residents.
Louisiana went the other way, enacting a law prohibiting ‚€œnative‚€
wineries from acting as wholesalers, effectively robbing them of any
ability to sell their wines without going through a distributor.
Louisiana‚€™s governor said she signed the bill to protect the state‚€™s
three-tier distribution system. All of these new laws were in reaction
to the US Supreme Court‚€™s recent decision.
California‚€™s Assembly is considering legislation allowing its wineries
to ship out of state, according to a July 14 article in the Napa Valley Register.
This perplexes me, as I thought they always could ship, at least to
‚€œreciprocal‚€ states. The buzz here is that retailers are complaining
because they are not included in the bill. They sense that the
pro-direct shipping legislation sponsored by the lawmaker who represents
Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties is actually a plot by wholesalers
to limit direct shipping by excluding retailers. Got that?
The battle is joined, my friends. Wineries and wholesalers are fighting
over the ‚€œlevel playing field‚€ mandated by the Supremes. This is now
a zero-sum game, with one side winning and the other losing. Or 50
zero-sum games. Or 50 separate mixed metaphors, whatever. With the
retailers getting involved, all three tiers may come tumbling down in a
big alcohol-fueled rugby scrum. Sorry, that’s redundant.
This would seem like a battle for survival, the way they‚€™re fighting
it. Maybe it is. But I wonder how the consumer will fare? (Louisiana
consumers do not have an advocate in the governor‚€™s mansion, that‚€™s
obvious.) I‚€™ve always wanted the ability to purchase wine directly
from whatever source gives me the best deal, whether that‚€™s a winery
or a retailer. Even if I, humble Maryland resident that I am, someday
get the right to purchase wine over the Web or phone and have it
delivered to my door, I will still buy most of my wine from retailers.
(Of course, given Maryland‚€™s laws and distribution, I buy mostly in DC
and Virginia, and so am technically violating limits on bringing
alcohol across the state line every time I return home with a case or
more.) Retailers ‚€“ at least the ones I patronize ‚€“ do a lot of the
hard work for me: They research the wines, taste the wines, and evaluate
their quality before they decide whether to take the business risk of
stocking them. Most of the time, of course, they buy them from
wholesalers, who do similar research, tasting and evaluation. These
people are on our side ‚€“ they want to sell us good wine. The
three-tier system works, in that I can try a wine at the store or at
home and evaluate it myself before deciding whether to buy. With direct
shipping, I have to buy a case. That rules out experimentation, and wine
lovers live to experiment.
There will be times, however, when I can‚€™t find a particular wine that
I want to stock in my cellar. Or Joe‚€™s Liquor Barn in Podunk has it
cheaper than anywhere near me (and of course it would have to be
considerably cheaper to justify the $36 per case shipping charge). Or
maybe I want to call my friends at Bottles & Corks in Corning and
have them put together a sampler case of Finger Lakes Rieslings for me.
(Now there’s experimentation!) At these times, I want the right to get
on the phone and place my order. Who knows? I might even pour a sample
for my favorite local retailers.
That‚€™s my two cents.

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