Stop, do not uncork 

Direct shipment laws limit choice more than anything

Back during Prohibition in the 1920s, Americans were forced to pay homage to sleazy bootleggers to get a buzz. Choices boiled down to dangerously strong distilled spirits and whatever concoction someone brewed in the basement. Once the temperance-driven experiment failed 14 long years later, Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing the federal government's control over their beverage choices had evaporated.

Unfortunately, the control just shifted to the state level.

The 21st Amendment, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition and gave every state the broad right to control the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages within its boundaries. Over the years, the states have developed elaborate systems of power, ranging from complete government control to the three-tier system, which is used in Georgia and Florida. "Three-tier" refers to the marketing/ distribution system whereby a supplier -- that is, the winery -- sells product to the wholesaler, who in turn sells it to restaurants and retailers. The success of the system is three-fold. Wholesalers collect excise and sales taxes on alcohol, a hefty task considering Americans' drinking habits. They prevent alcohol from getting into the hands of minors -- a heartstring issue lobbyists pull to block changes to existing laws. The system also prevents the "Wal-Marting" of alcohol, in which small companies would be forced out of business by mammoth competitors able to negotiate lower prices on bulk shipments. If wineries, for example, could sell directly to large warehouse clubs, then small retailers would have no way to meet or beat the warehouse retailer's prices.

Three-tier distribution has, over the years, become as much a matter of limitation as an issue of temperance and revenue. Currently, more than 2,400 wineries call the United States home. Of those, roughly 25 percent are represented by wholesalers in all 50 states. Although this limited selection is sufficient for most folks, the adventurous wine consumers seeking obscure labels face a steep wall of legalities. If you've tried to buy wine online in the past few years, chances are you were informed that it's illegal (a felony in Florida's case). In general, consumers are attempting to order boutique wines unavailable at home, but since local wholesalers don't profit from directly shipped wine (no markup profits come from wine directly shipped to the buyer's door), they exploit existing laws to prevent the sales.

But progress has been made in the past three years in several states. In July 2000, Georgia made it legal for consumers to receive up to five cases of wine, provided the winery does not already have representation, does not ship more than 50 cases a year, obtains a $50 license, and collects taxes at the point of purchase. North and South Carolina, in mid- and late 2003, announced new laws allowing wineries to ship not more than two cases of wine per month to an individual consumer, provided the total shipments don't exceed 1,000 cases; shipment containers announce their contents as alcohol; and a recipient over 21 signs for them. But in Florida, although there are at least three lawsuits fighting the anti-competitiveness of the current laws, you're shit outta luck if you want to ship wine into the state. Circumventing the system can actually land you in jail.

Sooner rather than later, the laws preventing direct shipment will probably fall on their collective asses, ending up in the Supreme Court. It seems that, as most states are discovering, a mixture of the two systems could make us all happy.

You gotta find it weird that in any other business, finding a way to profitably eliminate the middleman is considered an achievement, but in the alcoholic beverage industry, it's a crime. Go figure.

Recommended Wines

2001 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Wetzel Family Estate. $20. Deep, earthy and lush, like a chocolate cherry pie baked with tobacco leaves. Reminds me of sitting in front of a fire, wrapped in a warm, furry blanket. Elegant comfort.

Bonny Doon 2002 Pacific Rim Riesling. $12. Makes for rejuvenating juice after a hard day. Not your typical sweeter Riesling: dry and crisp with honeydew melon and grapefruit.


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