Direct-To-Consumer Wine Shipping Just Got More Complicated

A loose interpretation of wine laws has allowed a lot of illegal wine shipments to go through. But things are changing — and consumers are in for some surprises. . (Photo: Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock)

It's funny to think that the effects of Prohibition, which began in 1920 and ended in 1933, can still be felt today. When the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating liquors was repealed by the 21st Amendment, control over alcohol sales and transportation was handed to the states.

Since then, the individual laws of each state have made getting wine, beer and spirits across state lines difficult, sometimes even illegal. To complicate matters further, each state has different laws about wine, beer and spirits. It's legal to ship wine across certain state lines, but not legal to ship beer or spirits along the same path.

When shipping, you also have to take into consideration the laws of two states — the state where the wine is being shipped from and the state where the wine is being shipped to. Just because a state allows wine to be shipped out doesn't mean wine can be shipped in.

Right now, wine shipping to consumers is being scrutinized. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov recently wrote a piece titled Wines Are No Longer Free To Travel Across State Lines. Based on the title, you might think that no one can send a bottle of wine from one state to another, but the truth isn't that simple.

Following the letter of the law

Fed Ex Truck
Carriers like Fed Ex have started following the letter of the law when it comes to shipping wine to consumers. (Photo: Supuannee_Hickman/Shutterstock)

Over the past year, states have been cracking down, making sure that anyone shipping wine across state lines is doing so legally. However, one state doesn't have jurisdiction in another state when it comes to these issues, so states can't go after, say a retailer in New York who is shipping to Delaware, which doesn't allow any direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping. What the states can do, however, is go after the carriers that ship the wine like Fed Ex and UPS, reports Forbes.

That's what began happening about a year ago, and carriers started sending out letters to retailers saying they would no longer handle their shipments, according to Asimov.

The DTC shipments that have been going on for well over a decade — since a 2005 Supreme Court decision, which I'll address in a moment — have technically been illegal this whole time, but states weren't enforcing the laws. So what changed? Wine wholesalers, who donate a lot of money to politicians, have been lobbying the states and pointing out where laws are being broken because they've been losing money in sales.

The wholesalers, reports Asimov, deny it's about money. They say it's about protecting consumers from "fraud, threats to their health and underage drinking." They say they want to keep teenagers from easily getting alcohol, which I think is a joke. As I argued back in 2011 when New Jersey's wine shipping bill was being debated, teenagers are already getting alcohol and it's coming from liquor stores. Anyone who wants to stop someone else from selling alcohol because teens may get it (while they themselves are selling alcohol that teens are already getting) should stop their own method of selling alcohol if they're truly concerned.

So, in a confusing nutshell, this is where we are right now with wine shipping to consumers between states. No new laws have been passed. States are simply doing what they can to enforce current laws.

Let's take a look at who can and who can't ship wine from one state to another, keeping in mind that there's still a lot of confusion, and new laws can be passed by states at any time.

Consumer-to-consumer wine shipping

We'll start with the scenario that has no gray area. It's currently illegal — and has always been illegal — for you or I to ship wine. Shipping wine requires a license, and individuals aren't able to get a wine shipping license. So, if you as an individual want to send wine to someone, you can't put it in a box and ship it via the post office of any shipping carrier like Fed Ex or UPS.

Winery-to-consumer wine shipping

drinking wine, women, vineyard
If you fell in love with a wine when visiting a winery, they should still be able to ship their wines to your home, as long as they have the proper licensing. (Photo: Giorgio Magini/Shutterstock)

"It appears that the state laws affecting direct shipping in regards to wineries are in no danger of being altered," Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association told me when I asked him how it would affect my state's wineries. In New Jersey, wineries have been legally allowed to ship wines for the past five years, and residents have been legally allowed to have wines shipped to their homes for that same amount of time.

"Wineries can ship to states that allow direct shipping as long as they are licensed to do so in that state ... however, we are still looking into this to make sure there will be no problems," said Cosentino.

In addition, any state that allows its wineries to ship to its residents must also allow out-of-state wineries to ship to the state. That's due to a 2005 ruling by the Supreme Court, according to VinePair. If you're currently legally allowed to have wine shipped to your home directly from an out-of-state winery, this state crackdown on DTC shipping should not affect you unless the wineries shipping the wine weren't licensed to do so in the first place. Residents of Utah, Oklahoma, Delaware, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky may not receive any DTC wine shipments. Carriers are now making sure they only accept packages from licensed parties, according to Forbes. Unlicensed wineries will now have a difficult time finding a carrier to accept their packages.

Retailer-to-consumer wine shipping

wine retailer
Retailers that ship wine out of state will be affected by the crackdown in enforcing wine shipping laws. (Photo: Ikon Filimonov/Shutterstock)

Retailers weren't included in the 2005 Supreme Court ruling; only wineries were. Retailers that are not licensed to ship wines to another state will be most affected by the crackdown, and here's where it gets more complicated — and many would argue, unfair for both retailers and consumers.

Many large retail chains, like Total Wine & More, have stores all across the country and in-state licenses that allow them to ship in state, according to VinePair. These large retailers will still be able to ship directly to the consumer. As long as they have a store in a state, they can ship to that state.

Smaller, independent retailers are the ones that will really lose out. Unless a state allows shipping from out-of-state retailers — and there are only 13 that do so — they will lose the revenue that they have been getting from shipping across the U.S. Many of these small retailers are the ones that carry hard-to-find wines.

The states that allow wine to be shipped from other states from retailers with proper licensing are: Alaska, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. Washington, D.C. also allows DTC shipping.

Wine clubs may also be affected by this crackdown. If a wine club is run out of a single winery, then the winery shipping laws apply, and it should not be affected. But, wine clubs that are not run by wineries — such as the popular Wall Street Journal Wine Club — will be affected, according to VinePair. Those clubs will need to ensure that they are now are following each state's laws before carriers will deliver their wines.

It's always been frustrating to me that I can buy an article of clothing from another state — or even another country — and have it shipped to me without any legal interference, but if I want a bottle of wine shipped to me, there are hoops to be jumped through. As a result, I pay close attention to Free the Grapes, a website that keeps consumers up-to-date on wine shipping laws that affect them. It also lets consumers know when to contact their legislators if a shipping bill has been proposed. If this current DTC shipping problem is something you'd like changed, Free the Grapes is a reliable source for finding out what steps you can take to help.