Wine is complicated and believe it or not still hostage, to a degree in certain states, to Prohibition era legislation. The whole process gets further complicated by the messy relationship between State and Federal laws about import, export and interstate commerce. Believe it or not there is actually an organization that works to make sense of all this called Free the Grape. Their site is wonderful and contains a lot of information about the laws in various states, variations in state laws and what needs to be done to get fair uniformity across the nation.
I live in Montana and we had the worst laws, on direct shipment of wine, until a few years ago when we enacted a “connoisseurs” license statute that allowed a person to purchase ($50.00) a license to purchase specific beers and wines, directly from out of state producers and distributors, when not otherwise available in the state. In short we agreed to make sure that the state got it’s taxes on the wines we bought in exchange for getting better selection. Good idea or Disaster? It was clearly a disaster as it created a bureaucratic nightmare for both the state and the license holder. This process lasted one legislative cycle and then (as to wine) got repealed by a law that allowed for “Wineries” to directly ship up to 18 cases of their own product to any individual Montana resident each year. This created a vast improvement over the prior scheme, but wait it didn’t go far enough.
For some reason (restraint of trade I’m sure) Montana fears opening this opportunity up beyond wineries and their own products. I am told by persons within the Department of Revenue Liquor Division (MDRLD) that they want to keep out the big national distributors (e.g. Southern Wine and Spirits , (SWS)) from taking over the industry (and hard liquor monopoly) in Montana. Personally I find this logic curious as SWS own web-site lists a link to it’s Montana distribution network . What’s the big deal, isn’t 18 cases of wine enough? Certainly for me it is, but the larger issue is not how many cases I can get from a winery each year but rather getting greater variety and wines produced outside the US. According to the MDRLD the current law only allows wine produced (bottled) in a US winery to qualify for direct shipment. I would like to see this changed and I and others in Montana are working to revise our laws to provide for a free and open marketplace of wine regardless of its origin.
Some may wonder why they should care about Montana’s odd wine import laws, and unless you also happen to live in Montana you shouldn’t. The sad fact is , those living in other places have it far worse than I do. Several states don’t allow direct shipment at all, others, require it to be shipped though local distributors and still others only allow a certain gross limit (entire state quota) out of individual wineries. I have friends, in Michigan (which allows direct imports) for example, who have to order their wine before late January in order to get wine from some really popular wineries before the winery hits it quota. Why do we even have these archaic state laws? If the wine is shipped across state lines, it is in “Interstate Commerce” and clearly could/should be subject to Federal Law (which it is). If the state taxes get paid one would think that that a free and open market would be good for business overall.
The point of all this is my plea to get involved in your state and do your part to get the laws changed. Free the Grape has, free for the using, “draft” letters to legislators. They will even e-mail them for you. So make your voice heard and strike a blow for liberty, send a letter to your legislators and then follow up to make sure that they know you’re serious.
I’d love to hear what you think on this subject — Let the conversation begin.
Robert, I recently heard that when trying to get these three-tier distribution laws changed, the main problem isn’t necessarily coming from the wine industry at all but rather the huge beer distributors with powerful lobbies. Any sense on how true that is from your experience?
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Anna — It is absolutely true. The wine industry supports the liberalization of direct shipment rules, but the distributors (in state wine and beer) fight it tooth and nail as it takes money out of their pockets. In the three tier jurisdictions either NW or the purchaser has to pay the distributor a fee and in addition may have to pay the state taxes as well. It is different in almost every jurisdiction so there is no real general rule.
The distributor argument is generally public protection from nefarious on-line merchants who will sell to minors and cause more teenage DUI issues and MIP (minor in possession) problems. This is total bunk as any wine shipments must be made by UPS of FedEx and signed for by an adult. I know personally that both take this responsibility seriously as I am 68 years old and the FedEx driver, who has been servicing my office for years and who I am on a first name basis with, still asks for my ID. I am not saying that an adult can’t sign and give it to a minor, but we already know that adults are buying wine, beer and hard liquor for minors in stores all over the country and the Distributorship Monopoly does nothing to stop this behavior. So Free the Grape and deal with those issues where it lies in both situations with irresponsible adults engaging in criminal behavior.
Excellent discussion on a subject that has been very frustrating to us. We have interests in CA wineries that haven’t been able to ship our wines to us.
I hope you’ll also consider doing another blog about the newly enforced “corkage” laws that are causing many of Montana’s finest restaurants to stop allowing patrons to bring their own wines and pay a small fee to enjoy them with their dinner. All this due to an apparently “overzealous” govt. official who cited one Helena restaurant with the result that others are now afraid of also being cited.
It’s losing restaurants a lot of business and many are very unhappy with this along with many of their long time patrons. And it’s all due to a very badly worded and misinterpreted “ruling” that even has those in government unsure of its validity.
Happy to provide details Bob.
Russ send me some source information to my e-mail and I’ll work something up.
Can you send me your email. I have attachments. email@example.com
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