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I tried an experiment to purchase some wine for my brother-in-law’s wedding last month. My wife and I were unable to make it back east for the ceremony but we hoped to give the new couple two bottles to celebrate both the immediate occasion and a starter bottle for their cellar. Unfortunately, thanks to only recently changed laws on shipping alcohol to New Jersey I was unable to ship our choices to the state. We eventually were able to work around the often-byzantine interstate commerce laws, but only at the cost of gas, time and luck of having an onsite contact. Wine has always been a difficult luxury item to purchase online. It accounts for only 1% of total U.S wine sales, according to Wine.com, an online wine sales and distribution retailer. Laws governing alcohol sales differ from country to country, and in the United States, wine sales between states—and in some cases, even between municipalities—are highly regulated. The conflict arose from the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition and returning regulating power of liquor sales to the states. As it stands today, wineries can ship direct to consumer in 39 states. Online retailers can only ship to 12 states. All of the laws involve complex and differing regulations. That means that, depending on where you live and where your favorite wine is produced, there are a variety of possibilities to get at the grape you want. In a best-case scenario, a favorite vendor or wine club can send wine by the case. On the other hand you might be able to go direct to the winery, or finally you might just be out of luck. Penalties for improper shipping by wineries and consumers range from fines to the possibility of felony charges. A hope was that an online giant such as Amazon would lobby to change laws and develop sales and a potential tax base to drive a national system of regulation. But after two failed attempts to enter the wine e-retail business in 2000 and 2009, Amazon’s recently announced third attempt at selling wine does nothing of the sort, notes economist Paulo Santos. Instead, the company plans to put the onus on wineries to manage shipping and compliance to consumers, charging a 15% premium to allow the wineries access to Amazon’s customer lists. This is likely to result in higher per-bottle charges passed on to consumers, not to mention potentially higher shipping fees as each winery finds its own way to ship. This may allow Amazon a way to get around those interstate commerce laws to generate a greater profit, but is unlikely to benefit consumers in any meaningful way. This is a complex issue that needs a solution to provide consumers with the greatest choice and convenience while still allowing our favorite wineries and vendors to make the profits they need to stay in business. If you are interested in finding out more about this issue and in encouraging a solution, visit www.freethegrapes.org for in in-depth explanation and suggestions for what you can do to help.

Tags: shipping, sales, law

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