Wine Legislation Roundup: A Consumer's Guide to 2017 State Politics

States set most of the rules for alcohol sales and production. So what are your state senators and representatives up to?
Wine Legislation Roundup: A Consumer's Guide to 2017 State Politics
Fifty states, fifty sets of alcohol laws. (iStock/Julesinski )
Mar 28, 2017

With all the recent drama in Washington, D.C., it can be easy to forget that hundreds of lawmakers in state capitols are busy drafting and debating bills that could impact their constituents—that's you. The 2017 legislative season is currently underway in most states. And because the 21st Amendment to the Constitution delegates much of the power to regulate alcohol to the states, there are plenty of proposals that could change the way you buy and consume wine and other alcoholic beverages.

From the endless direct shipping wars to changes in blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limits for driving to excise tax increases and exemptions to diapers and wine ice cream, here's a guide to the proposed laws now under debate.

Alabama

There are 24 dry counties in Alabama. But House Bill 133 would allow wineries to operate in a dry county, if that county has at least one wet municipality. That would be all of them: Currently, every dry county in Alabama has between one and four wet municipalities.

Arkansas

Arkansas is the latest state to allow wine sales in grocery stores. Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the bill into law March 16, to the joy of many wine-loving consumers in the state. Opponents complained that this will hurt wine and liquor stores, and that it discriminates against spirits and beer by applying only to wine. (The bill also allocates 100 percent of grocery store wine-licensing fees to the Arkansas Wine Grants Fund, which supports Arkansas wineries.)

The governor signed another bill in March easing shipping restrictions on wine. Previously, a small farm winery could only ship wine to a customer who purchased the wine at the winery. Act 313 lifts this restriction. The bill also redefines the term "small farm winery" as a winemaking establishment that produces at least 800 gallons of wine, rather than one that produces no more than 250,000 gallons.

A bill to legalize alcohol sales on Christmas Day was withdrawn only a few weeks after introduction.

California

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill proposing to exempt diapers and menstruation products from sales taxes on the grounds that the bill didn't find a way to make up for the lost revenue. This year a lawmaker found an alternative source of revenue, proposing to raise excise taxes on alcohol in order to balance the budget. The sponsors hope to put pressure on the governor to prioritize basic necessities for women and children over liquor.

Connecticut

A 36-year-old law in Connecticut requires wholesalers to set minimum prices for alcoholic beverages and prohibits discounting. Retailers pay the same amount per bottle regardless of how many bottles they are purchasing from their suppliers. This has made liquor prices in Connecticut relatively high compared to those of its neighbors.

Gov. Dannel Malloy is on his sixth attempt to repeal the minimum bottle pricing law. Senate Bill 789, he says, would stop Connecticut from losing millions of dollars in revenue every year because consumers are going outside the state to purchase cheaper booze.

The bill has pitted big and small companies against each other. In other states, big chains get discounts from buying larger volumes. Representatives from small stores say the minimum bottle pricing law is their only way to compete. "The passage of [this] bill could decrease the number of stores by as many as 700," said Carroll Hugues, executive director of the Connecticut Package Stores Association (CPSA). "The agenda is clear that [big] box stores need predatory [pricing] for their model to succeed."

Another bill would mandate that out-of-state suppliers of alcoholic beverages filter their shipments through a warehouse for inspection before the products are passed onto distributors and retailers in the state. This would ensure compliance with taxation and public health regulations, the bill states. And a proposed law would increase the number of farmers' markets a winery could sell their wine at each year.

Florida

Big retailers are targeting an 80-year-old law passed right after Prohibition ended in the Sunshine State. Grocery stores that sell wine and beer cannot sell hard liquor in the same store. If they wish to sell spirits, they are required to have an auxiliary store with a separate entrance. This is commonly known as the "liquor wall." Target and Wal-Mart are lobbying for the bill, which is currently awaiting a vote in the state senate. Opponents claim it will give minors easier access to spirits and hurt specialty liquor stores.

Georgia

Brewers and distillers have been lobbying lawmakers in Georgia to loosen regulations for direct sales. The two proposed bills—Senate Bill 85 for beer and House Bill 60 for spirits—would allow consumers to purchase beer and spirits directly at the breweries and distilleries that produce them. HB 60 would also allow distillers to offer free tastings of their product, something breweries were granted in 2016.

Indiana

Indiana legislators are proposing a minor increase on alcohol excise taxes: from $2.68 to $2.77 a gallon for liquor and wine that exceeds 21 percent ABV. A bill introduced in the state senate would significantly lower beer excise taxes (from $0.115 to $0.035 per gallon for the first 500,000 gallons and to $0.075 for up to 15 million gallons) for any beer that contains at least 20 percent Indiana-grown hops and barley.

Kansas

Senate Bill 164 would allow a city to designate specific public areas—such as streets and parks—where one could consume alcoholic beverages legally. Another bill, proposed in the House, would allow patrons to remove open containers from a licensed restaurant or bar, as long as the drink was partially consumed on premise and remained in its original container.

Kentucky

Under current Kentucky law, winery direct shipping is limited to small wineries making 50,000 gallons of wine or less per year and retailer direct shipping is prohibited. A bill introduced in the house in February would loosen these regulations, allowing direct shipping across the board. Any "wine manufacturer, producer, supplier, importer, wholesaler or retailer"—in or out of state—would be permitted to ship up to 24 cases of wine per year directly to Kentucky residents. However, common carriers (FedEx, UPS) currently will not ship wine to Kentucky residents because of the state's laws prohibiting shipment of wine to residents of dry counties, and this bill does not address that limitation.

Another bill would allow college and universities that offer food- and beverage-related courses to serve alcoholic beverages to students for educational purposes.

Maine

In Maine, existing law says a retailer can only conduct sample tastings of wine and malt liquor if they carry at least 125 different wine labels or 100 malt liquor labels. A bill currently being reviewed would do away with such requirements. Also, a representative in the house has proposed allowing the direct shipment of wine bottles smaller than 750ml, currently prohibited.

Maryland

Senate Bill 937—which passed the senate and is waiting to be heard in the house—would make consuming an alcoholic beverage in public or possessing an open container a civil, as opposed to criminal, offense, and would lower the maximum fine upon conviction to $100.

Massachusetts

A bill in Massachusetts is seeking to double excise taxes on alcohol. All funds would be used for various substance-abuse treatment and awareness programs. Another proposal would allow Bay Staters to buy booze on Thanksgiving Day. (A ban on Christmas Day sales would still stand.)

Minnesota

Minnesota is one of the only states in the country that allows winery direct shipping from out of state without a permit. This would change under House File 791, which would require wineries to seek a permit to ship to Minnesota residents. It would also add new provisions, such as a 2-case-per-year limit for consumers from any given winery.

Another bill would allow people currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces to consume, purchase and possess alcohol in Minnesota starting at age 18.

Earlier in March, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill permitting liquor sales on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. (Sunday sales were previously banned). And good news for attendees of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis: Bars and restaurants can stay open until 4 a.m. that weekend, rather than 2 a.m. The law sunsets at 4:01 a.m. on the Monday after the big game.

Mississippi

On March 15, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill allowing breweries to sell beer directly to consumers visiting the venue, for either on- or off-premise consumption, as long as these same products are also available for sale through wholesalers.

A bill allowing direct shipping of wine died in committee two weeks after it was introduced.

Montana

Montana lawmakers are looking to raise excise taxes on alcohol, and originally proposed increasing taxes only on wine. After pushback from the wine industry, a revised bill now includes tax hikes on beer and spirits too.

New Hampshire

A bill proposed in the state senate would allow wineries to open an auxiliary outlet where they could sell their wines to visitors for off-premise consumption, as well as offer on-premise sampling of the products—with a limit of 2 ounces per label, per person.

New Jersey

For years, New Jersey direct shipping laws have been challenged in court. Current state law allows winery direct shipping of up to 12 cases a year per resident, but only wineries producing 250,000 gallons of wine or less are allowed to ship wine into the state. Assembly Bill 4656 would do away with the volume cap, allowing all wineries to ship into New Jersey regardless of production size.

New Mexico

New Mexico wineries, brewers and distillers are concerned by Senate Bill 314, which would raise excise taxes on alcohol to the highest in the country. The bill proposes hikes from $0.45 to $2.14 per liter for wine, from $1.60 to $7.24 per liter for spirits, and from $0.41 to $3.08 per gallon for beer. "I hate to use the word neo-Prohibitionist, because it gets thrown around too much, but it's kind of like that," John Gozigian, executive director of the New Mexico Brewer's Guild, told Wine Spectator. No action has been taken on the bill so far.

In more booze-friendly news, another bill in the house would allow visitors to a winery to remove a partially-consumed bottle of wine from the venue, providing it has been resealed with a cork. And BYOB may be coming to New Mexico restaurants. Senate Bill 58 would allow restaurant guests to bring their own wine to dinner, as long as the wine is not available on the menu.

New York

Shipping advocates in the Empire State are attempting to end the ban on retailer direct shipping. Assembly Bill 5991 would allow out-of-state retailers to ship wine directly to New York residents.

New York is also considering cracking down on drunk driving. In a bill drafted in January, BAC levels would be lowered from 0.08 percent to 0.06 percent to charge someone with driving while intoxicated, and from 0.18 to 0.14 percent for aggravated driving while intoxicated.

The legislature is also considering two health-focused bills. One would require restaurants and bars to post warning signs relating to the dangers of drinking while pregnant. A3846 would require alcoholic beverages being sold for off-premise consumption to have calorie counts on their labels. The bill does not specify if it would be the responsibility of the retailer or the manufacturer to implement this requirement.

And in dessert news, a bill would end the requirement that ice cream and other frozen desserts made with wine come in packages of at least 1 pint.

Ohio

It seems Ohio also wants to hop onto the tipsy ice cream trend. In early February, the House introduced a bill that would allow the manufacture of boozy ice cream—but only between 0.5 and 6 percent ABV.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island legislators are considering a bill that would allow both out-of-state wineries and retailers to ship into the state—both are prohibited now, except when Rhode Islanders pay a visit to the out-of-state winery in question. Bonus points: The bill also proposes a license to allow the shipment of gift baskets with up to four bottles of wine.

In tax news, Senate Bill 565 would exempt the first 50,000 gallons of wine produced by a winery from excise taxes, but only if the wine is destined for distribution in Rhode Island.

Texas

A Texas bill wants to legalize direct shipping by out-of-state retailers of wine, beer and spirits. "[These laws] will provide important new tax revenue for the states and they put in place well-tested safeguards against minors obtaining alcohol via direct shipment," said Tom Wark of the National Association of Wine Retailers of both Texas' and New York's proposed bills.

Another bill would require wine carrying a Texas appellation of origin to be made with 100 percent Texas grapes and be fully produced and bottled in the state.

Utah

On March 23, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he will sign a bill lowering the BAC for driving under the influence from 0.08 to 0.05, the lowest in the nation. The hospitality and tourism industries have been urging Herbert to veto the bill, claiming liquor laws in the state are restrictive enough. The American Beverage Institute took out full-page ads in local newspapers depicting a mug shot of a woman holding up a sign reading "Crime: Had one drink with dinner."

Virginia

In Virginia, food and beverage go hand in hand … says the legislature. A bill awaiting Gov. Terry McAuliffe's signature would mandate food to be served at all times that alcoholic beverages are served in bars and restaurants. Some hospitality industry members claim the bill is bad for business: It would force owners to either pay for their kitchen staff to stay late or close down their bar early.

Virginia's Alcoholic Beverage Control board currently mandates a 45 percent food-to-beverage sales ratio for all on-premise venues. Last year, a proposal to lower this to 25 percent failed, but a new bill this session would set it at 35 percent.

Washington

Washington politicians are debating several measures in this major wine state. A bill awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee's signature would double the amount of permitted tasting rooms at wineries from two to four. Another bill would favor small wineries by exempting the first 20,000 gallons of wine produced from excise taxes.

Serving alcoholic beverages in movie theaters has been a recent trend. Currently in Washington, theaters can only serve alcohol if they have less than 120 seats per screen. Senate Bill 5161 would remove this restriction.

Like New York and Utah, Washington is also trying to lower the BAC levels, from 0.08 to 0.05 for driving while intoxicated. Another bill proposed legalizing wine growlers—a popular container for beer and cider—but failed in committee.

Legal and Legislative Issues United States News

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