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Monday, April 22

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Are You a Felon?

You might be without even knowing it, my pet. Say you box up a lovely bottle of bubbly for your Nana's 85th birthday and ship it to her in Boca Raton... you're a felon. Yep. Your kind gesture could get you a whopping $10K fine, time in the pokey, and a lifetime of checking the dreaded "have you been convicted..." box on job applications. Now, it's probably not likely. They're not after you, necessarily. What the Florida government is looking to prevent is large retailers and wineries shipping directly to their residents. And this is not just a quirky Florida thing. There are around 20 states that (until recently) prohibit wine shipments into their state and enforce hefty fines. Only Florida and a few others make it a double whammy felony. It has wine lovers around the country hoppin' mad and has prompted several lawsuits — one big one recently in front of the Supreme Court.

The states of Michigan and New York brought their case all the way to the Big Nine this summer, and wine lovers triumphed! ...sort of. The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to allow New York and Michigan based wineries to ship wine to residents within their state, but prohibit other out-of-state wineries from doing the same. Sounds great — sounds like every state has to allow wine shipments in to their hometown right? Wrong. Instead, Michigan is actually considering banning all wineries, within Michigan and outside the state, from shipping to its residents. And it's completely legal.

So, as all of the US states that formerly prohibited wine shipments are revising their laws to comply with the Supreme Court decision, many are considering the all out ban. It really stinks. If you want to help out, visit a site called freethegrapes.com. They have all the legal stuff spelled out and links to various legislators that can help us keep the supply of vino flowing freely throughout the good old US of A. (Illinois allows residents to receive wine shipments, thank goodness! Last time I checked, there was a limit on how many cases one person could receive per year, but I've never seen it enforced. Some wineries may only ship you two cases at a time to attempt to comply with this rule, but that's about it.)

So why do these states care if I belong to a California Wine Club or want to send a gift bottle to my newly promoted pal in Detroit? Cash. Any wine sold out of state collects no tax and most states have hefty "sin taxes" on alcohol. Beyond that, some states are actually the sole vendors of booze to their residents. Folks in Pennsylvania and a few others have to buy all their wine and liquor from state run stores, where the state gets the retail mark-up and the tax money from every sale. They fear that free trade will hit them too hard in the state budget pocketbook.

But the true Goliath in this battle is a huge lobbying group — the Wine and Spirits Distributors. Right now, every restaurant and retailer in a state must buy all of their product for resale from a distributor located within their state. Liquor distributors have state-wide monopolies on the products they distribute and law mandates that every wine business must deal with them as a middle man. Large distributors have been eating up the little guys in states around the country in the past three years, making it almost impossible for smaller distributors to survive. These big guys want to ensure that all purchases continue to go directly through them. And to be fair — these large distributorships don't much care about the connoisseur buyer who buys the occasional Special Reserve wine from a boutique winery in California; they're worried about a slippery slope argument and, more importantly, CostCo.

There are rumors abound that big box giants like Sam's Club and CostCo will try to buy their products directly from wineries in the US and bypass distributors altogether due to this type of ruling. That scares the bejeezus out of them, because that is really big money they'll miss out on. So they have joined forces with the most unlikely of bedfellows, the Christian Right.

Some conservative Christian groups have big worries that this new legislation will allow their tech savvy kids to buy booze willy nilly on the Internet and have it shipped to their home. This has never been a real issue. There is plenty of technology in place to prevent underage purchases, including ID verification at the retailer level and ID checks upon delivery with at least one of the big shipping companies. But these folks are just sure that little Johnnie is going to steal their credit card, place an order for a case of hooch, including the $40 shipping, and wait around the house in a suit and tie, hoping to fool the FedEx guy with his fake ID when he shows up in three to seven days. Then he's got to figure out how to hide the booze and steal your next credit card statement that further reveals his sinful purchase. The idea of this is absurd! If your kid really wants to go on a bender, there are plenty of easier ways to get beer. And if the kid is that cunning, you've got bigger issues to deal with.

So, that's the deal with shipping booze across state lines as it stands right now. Sometimes it's illegal — it's up to you to check the laws of your particular state. If you really want to send Nana a special bottle of something in Boca Raton, you're going to have to find a local Florida retailer to deliver it to her. Or you could send her some nice "olive oil" that you packed yourself and dropped off at UPS or FedEx. But you didn't hear that from me.

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About the Author(s)

Christine Blumer is the owner of Winediva Enterprises, a private wine education and events company. She writes for several culinary and wine magazines and produces a monthly e-newsletter, Diva Dish. Subscribe via email to winedivaentmsncom or visit www.winedivaent.com.

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