A bill moving through Congress has some wine lovers worried they won’t be able to get their favorite wine in the mail anymore.
But supporters of the bill say it won’t end direct shipping. Instead, they counter, it is meant to provide clarity to the federal courts that have been dealing with alcohol regulation cases.
HR5034 — known as the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010, or the CARE ACT — was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, and is meant to strengthen state governments’ control of alcohol distribution.
The state of Florida does not currently allow manufactures or wineries to sell directly to retailers. Instead retailers need to go through a distributor to purchase their wines. They can then sell locally or ship anywhere in the country.
Some wine lovers believe the bill — which received support from National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America and 31 Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers — will limit their ability to get the boutique wines they love.
“I don’t know why they’re doing this,” said Sukie Honeycutt, chief wine buyer for Tony’s Off Third, 1300 Third Street S. “All it does is prohibit people from having access.”
News of proposed legislation first surfaced in March during a Congressional subcommittee hearing.
It was during that hearing that wholesalers and state regulators said the three-tier system was under attack, according to Wine Spectator, a wine industry trade magazine.
The magazine also reported wholesalers and regulators said the country faces “an alcohol epidemic” if Congress didn’t step up to the plate and prevent deregulation.
But local wine expert Bruce Nichols called the arguments ridiculous.
“The lobbyists’ ill-fated and absurd arguments that direct shipping encourages over-consumption and provides unbridled access to minors is just silly,” said Nichols, the founder of A Nichols Worth of Wine, an online newsletter about wine.
“I’m not quite sure how ordering a bottle of wine online, paying full retail plus shipping and waiting three days for delivery makes one drink to excess. And to think underage drinkers are skipping school and peeking through the curtains looking for the UPS driver to deliver a $50 bottle of cult cabernet is equally ridiculous.”
Honeycutt said the legislation could mean wine lovers wouldn’t have access to speciality wines that can’t be found at the average big box liquor store.
Take for example any Peter Michael wine: The Calistoga, Calif. winery ships wines to a handful of states across the country and aren’t carried by every retailer.
Tony’s Off Third carries Peter Michael wines, and Honeycutt said the proposed legislation could make it more difficult for people who live in a state where it isn’t available to get the wine.
The company also ships directly to consumers lucky enough to get on the winery’s waiting list.
“Right now there’s a lot of small distributors in small-town wineries,” said Jessica Palmer, owner of Decanted Wine, 1410 Pine Ridge Road.
“If they didn’t have that online business, they would disappear and we would be a state that would be controlled by big distributors and big wines.”
That’s not the purpose of the bill, said Paul Pisano, the vice president of industry affairs and general counsel for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
Pisano said crazy things have been said about the bill in recent days, none of which are true.
“It’s not going to end shipping of wine or alcohol,” Pisano said. “To the folks that say this is going to end direct shipping, that’s flat-out wrong.”
Pisano said the law will reinforce a 2005 Supreme Court decision, which said states can’t discriminate between in-state and out-of-state wineries in matters of direct to consumer shipping.
The legislation would clarify the commerce clause, and “take the federal judge out of making alcohol laws,” Pisano said.
“The only people who should be concerned about this legislation are the people who had planned to go to federal court and sue,” Pisano said.
But wineries and wine lovers are coming out in droves against the legislation. A Facebook group has been formed, and as of Monday afternoon more than 7,700 people have joined in opposition of the bill (address is in the accompanying box).
Wineries are also rallying their members asking them to send letters to their congressional representatives asking them to oppose the legislation.
Nichols said in an e-mail Monday that he doubted this would be the last time the issue would come up.
“This is not the first, nor will it be the last, attempt by wholesalers, chain stores and even large wineries to stop direct-to-consumer sales,” Nichols said. “And I suspect it will go the way of previous attempts to end direct shipping — that is, flounder in Congress for months and the fade into the walls of Washington only to resurface again in a few years.”
The bill has been referred to the House judiciary committee, and no date was available for when it would be discussed.