Home > Bits and Bobs, Controversy, Geeky Factoids, High End > Winery Mailing Lists. . . A Blessing or a Curse?

Winery Mailing Lists. . . A Blessing or a Curse?

So as direct winery to consumer sales are a constant source of controversy in the wine world, I thought I might expound on the topic a bit in a free-form sort of way (as per usual), chime in with my 2¢ on the topic, and provide some much-needed info for those of you out there that probably already stopped reading that don’t know what I am talking about.  The good ol’ US of A regulates the sale of liquor and other intoxicating beverages through what is known as the 3-tier system.  This requires, in most circumstances, that wineries (1st tier) sell their goods to distributors (2nd tier) who turn around and sell these to retailers (3rd tier) before the consumer (you and I) get to peruse the selection at our local Sam’s Club and bring the stuff home to drink.  I’ll try not to bore you with the details, but add that this is the general outline of how things work nationwide.  Individual states have some say in how this is carried out and the set-up from state to state can be drastically different.  There are states wherein the government owns and operates all retail liquor establishments, limits where and how much booze can be purchased at a time, or allows some distributors to act as their owner retailers (loopholes abound).  The moral of this story is that this entrenched 3-tier system means many things to many people, but is based in the aftermath of Prohibition and the fact that the government feels people need to be protected from themselves.

In 2005 the Supreme Court heard a case involving small wineries in both Michigan and New York (Granholm v. Heald) in which these states were allowing consumers to purchase and ship wine directly from wineries in state, but not from wineries located in other states.  The court held that this practice was unconstitutional based on the commerce clause, which prohibits the picking of winners (in-state wineries) and losers (out-of-state wineries) by a government.  Ultimately, it was ruled that states did have the power to prohibit or allow direct winery shipments, but would have to do so unilaterally without preference for any one state over another.

Retailers and distributors tend to fight very hard for the prohibition of direct sales and the reason is obvious. . . it takes power (and purportedly sales) away from them.  Wineries (at least the quality minded ones) and consumers tend to side with allowing direct shipping because it increases competition on price and quality (more choices), and helps small boutique wineries stay afloat in an ocean of mass-produced plonk.  Most distributors strongly tend toward carrying only wines of high production amounts because it is easier for them to make more money representing less individual wineries that way (read: more money for less work), which means that small production wineries can rarely get distribution (read: no money=out of business).  Taking into account that the vast majority of wines in this country are consumed within hours of purchase, and that the shipping costs associated with buying wine from a winery, most people (myself included) are certainly going to their local reputable wine retailer for the lion’s share of the wine consumed.

Here is Ohio they do allow direct wine shipping, which is where the blessing and curse come in (I’ll try and tie this together).  Ohio, among many other states, allow this shipping but make the red tape so difficult for this to happen that many wineries simply opt out of direct shipping to Ohio for fear of non-compliance citations.  Those few, brave wineries that will weather the storm with me do bless me with a very much expanded choice of small production and high quality wines.  Furthermore, many of these small production wineries are very much in demand and require that you stand in line (metaphorically of course) for a year or two before be afforded “dibs” on some of the goodies.  The curse is that I simply cannot miss signing up to try many of these wineries and have gotten in pretty deep over the years.  Add to the mix that each winery releases wines twice a year (in general) and if you fail to purchase at least one bottle. . . you may just be kicked out of line.  To see how deep the rabbit hole goes, reference the following list of wineries which I am currently in line for; whether or not they have offered me anything:

-J. Rochioli, Williams-Selyem (see top photo), Arista (see right), Herman Story, Blackbird Vineyards, Jemrose, Kosta Browne, Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle, Turley, Martinelli, T.R. Elliott, Sea Smoke, Rhys, and Kistler. . . at least those are the ones I can remember.

Now if only retailers were allowed to order directly from wineries, we might have something workable.  Of course the distributors will never let that happen.  I certainly don’t order from all these wineries all of the time or I would be completely bankrupt, but it is always tempting. . . Now if you are dedicated enough to have made it through the whole post, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this issue.  What lists are you on and what do you think ought to be changed (or maintained) about the 3-tier system?

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  1. M
    July 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Nice post about a complicated subject! I live in Massachusetts where the laws are fairly complicated, but perhaps not as much as Ohio. I’m a bit shocked by that actually! :) Mass will allow you to direct order from wineries that produce less than 30,000 gallons of grape wine per year. On top of that (and other crazy things) FedEx and UPS generally don’t ship wine to MA because they need to have a $150 permit for each truck that is allowed to carry wine. Theoretically, these caps were struck down in a court decision several years ago, but none of these technicalities have been cleared up though new legislation has been proposed (and been stuck in committee) as recently as the 2011 session. Fortunately, for me, we have a great wine shop that will order wines for us if the winery falls above the 30,000 gallon mark (and we generally can’t afford the likes of Screaming Eagle) without a minimum bottle or case purchase. And perhaps more fortunately, we live about 20-30 minutes from the New Hampshire border… and, well, the UPS Store specifically states that they can sign for packages and will accept wine.

    • July 19, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      I’m glad you liked it and thanks for reading! The impossible piece of the whole thing is that these laws are in a constant state of flux. As an example, when my wife and I were in Napa/Sonoma in 09′ certain wineries would and would not ship to Ohio. In 11′, some of the same wineries had changed their policies! If you really want to get involved or at least to be informed, check out http://www.freethegrapes.org. It is a grassroots type organization with the goal of freeing up the shipping and trading regulations across the USA.

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