Has Massachusetts Winery Shipping Legislation Finally Reached the Red Zone?

Patriots QB-turned-vintner Drew Bledsoe is under center in the drive to pass House Bill 294
Mar 21, 2013

Will this be the year that Massachusetts, the seventh-largest wine-consuming state, finally gets a legitimate winery-to-consumer shipping bill? Hopes are high in the Bay State, despite repeated setbacks: The state's most recent direct-shipping law passed in 2005 and, not long afterward, was ruled unconstitutional. The preceding law had been declared unconstitutional as well.

Rep. Theodore Speliotis has introduced House Bill 294, which would allow both local and out-of-state wineries, after applying for a $100 state permit, to ship up to 24 cases of wine a year to Massachusetts residents. Sen. Daniel Wolf has co-sponsored the bill, crafted with the assistance of the Wine Institute, a winery advocacy organization.

"We're very optimistic," said Carol Martel, northeastern states counsel for the Wine Institute. "Some of our opposition doesn't seem to be nearly as stringent this year, in part because we sat down with the wholesalers prior to submitting our potential draft and talked about some of the issues we were concerned about on both sides."

In previous years, Massachusetts wholesalers had opposed shipments from out of state, fearing they would cut into their business. "The Maryland study will help allay fears," Martel added, referencing recent findings from Maryland's comptroller that winery shipments increased wine sales and state revenue without hurting wholesalers or local retailers.

(Still, state wholesalers aren't supporting H294—they're backing another recently introduced direct-shipping bill, H258, sponsored by Rep. Michael Moran, which would limit winery shipments to four cases per year per consumer, raise the annual permit fee to $150 and add a $350 application fee.)

Another game changer: "Drew Bledsoe was willing to step to the plate as a winery owner and come to Boston where he is still revered," Martel said of the former New England Patriots All-Pro quarterback. "It's helping us bring this issue front and center."

Bledsoe will be conducting a media blitz today in Boston along with Jeremy Benson, executive director of consumer advocacy group Free the Grapes. "Drew lives in Oregon, he has a winery—Doubleback—in Washington," Benson said. "He's prohibited from selling directly to consumers, and obviously he has a big fan base in Massachusetts, so he's offered to help get this message across to legislators and media."

"The reasons I'm supporting H294 are simple," Bledsoe wrote via e-mail. "It's fair and it's right. It's fair for consumers to be able to buy wine directly from wineries. It's fair for wineries to be able to sell wine directly to consumers. It's right for the state of Massachusetts to realize increased tax revenue from these sales … The legislation has been written. All that is left is for the lawmakers of Massachusetts to take action and vote 294 into law."

It's been more than four years since Massachusetts' "volume-cap" winery shipping law was struck down by a U.S. District Court as discriminatory. During that time, the state's shipping laws have been in limbo, though local wineries have continued to ship to consumers.

In 2005, Massachusetts' volume cap was seen by direct-shipping opponents as a novel end-around to the Supreme Court's 2005 Granholm decision, which ruled that states may not discriminate between in- and out-of-state wineries. The new law set a production-volume limit of 30,000 gallons per year—the size of the largest Massachusetts winery—to be eligible for a shipping permit. By doing this, state legislators could please both their constituent wineries, by permitting them to ship directly to consumers, and wholesalers, by excluding virtually all medium-size and larger wineries in California, Oregon and Washington.

The idea caught on, and other states including Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey and Ohio introduced similar volume-cap laws, many of which remain on the books.

Unfortunately for wine drinkers in Arizona, Kentucky, New Jersey and Ohio, those states likely won't follow Massachusetts into consumer-friendly wine law territory until another federal judge forces it into their game plan.

Direct Shipping Legal and Legislative Issues

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