Local politics matter: While Congress and the White House are busy in Washington, D.C., your state leaders are also debating legislation—and some of it impacts your access to wine. Because the 21st Amendment to the Constitution gives most alcohol-regulation power to the states, you had better pay attention to yours.
The issues under debate this year are wide-ranging, from the serious to the absurd. As always, direct shipping is a hot topic, with wineries and retailers at the center of the debate; wine could be coming to a movie theater, stadium, art gallery or bookstore near you; Virginia wants a license plate with a special wine message; and much more.
For a comprehensive look, here's a guide to the proposed laws currently under consideration.
The legislature in Maryland is looking to put stricter restrictions on producers making wine in the state. A bill would require wineries to own at least 20 acres of grapes or other fruit in cultivation in the state for use in the production of wine. If less than 20 acres are owned, wineries would have to use at least 51 percent of Maryland fruit in their product.
There's also a push in some states for legalizing on-premise consumption at wineries. Oklahoma is considering allowing tastings at wineries. New Mexico is debating legalizing on-premise sales at wineries for private celebrations, like weddings (currently, only public celebrations have this privilege). Washington wineries might be able to increase the number of tasting rooms they can have from two to four. And in South Carolina, a bill would allow a winery to hold a license for a separate venue where they could sell their wine on-premise, as long as it is not in the same location as said winery.
In November 2016, Oklahoma legalized winery-direct shipping by ballot measure. This will go into effect in October 2018, and lawmakers are currently fine-tuning the legislation that will regulate shipping. In May 2017, a few fixes were made to the bill. Some additional changes may be made before the fall. As it stands, wineries will be able to ship up to six 9-liter cases of wine a year to Oklahoma consumers if they acquire a $350 permit. Both wineries and common carriers will have to file reports, and the former will pay taxes on the wine they ship.
In both Alabama and Delaware, winery-direct shipping is also being considered. And in New Jersey, where winery-direct shipping is legal, legislators are looking to loosen the grip a little. Currently, only wineries making 250,000 gallons (about 80,000 cases) or less annually can ship into the state; a bill creates a "reserve" shipping license for wineries making over 250,000 gallons.
Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island legislators are considering making out-of-state retailer-direct shipping into their states legal. In New York, the proposed bill would allow reciprocal shipping, meaning only licensees in states where retailer-direct shipping is also legal may ship into New York.
In New Hampshire, a bill would outlaw out-of-state retailer-direct shipping. In South Carolina and Virginia, similar bills would mandate that alcohol has to physically go through a wholesaler's premises before being passed on to a retailer. In Virginia, the bill specifies that the product must rest there for no less than 4 hours.
What are the wine-shipping laws in my state? Wine Spectator's state-by-state guide to winery and retailer direct shipping laws is regularly updated with the most accurate information available.
Wineries got good news late last year with the expansion of federal excise tax credits. More goodies on the state level are being discussed, including a small winery tax credit in Washington for wineries making up to 20,000 gallons of wine annually (about 8,500 cases), tax deductions toward state income tax in Maryland for expenses related to winery operations, and more tax credits and a loan program in New Jersey for new wineries starting their business.
On the distributor side, it's mostly bad news. While Oklahoma lawmakers want to decrease taxes for retailers and distributors on sales of alcoholic beverages, from 13.5 to 6.5 percent, most other states are looking at a tax hike. In Kentucky, wholesale sales tax could rise from 11 to 14 percent. In South Dakota, wholesalers and wineries would face a tax increase from $0.93 a gallon to $1.27.
It's been long debated, but has never become reality: A bill would allow grocery stores to sell wine in New York state. Is this the year? Perhaps, but it's so far not been included in the governor's budget.
In Maryland, Montgomery County—a suburban area to Washington, D.C.—is also looking to expand where consumers can buy wine at retail. A bill is proposing the creation of a "dispensary" adjoining a grocery store, established and maintained by the County Department of Liquor Control, which could sell wine for off-premise consumption. The dispensary could only exist if the grocery store was at least 10,000 square feet. It would also have to be separated from the main store by a barrier, which customers could enter or leave through just one passageway. Customers would have to pay for their alcoholic beverages at the dispensary itself, and not in the main grocery store.
In West Virginia, where selling wine in grocery stores is legal, a proposed law would allow stores to sell West Virginia wine without a license. In Oklahoma, a requirement that alcohol must be sold at room temperature at retail and package stores could be repealed.
And some good news for farmers markets: Washington state may legalize wine sales at the markets, and New York could allow wine sales at roadside markets, as long as they're located within one mile of the winery.
Movie theaters nationwide have recently been looking to woo back viewers with better wine offerings. But serving booze in theaters is not legal everywhere. In Maryland, legislators may create a liquor license for movie theaters in Prince George's County (east of D.C.)—as long as the average sales of food (excluding candy and popcorn—sorry) exceeds that of alcohol and that the owner has invested at least $2 million in renovating the theater. And the state government is also considering allowing a liquor license for theaters and museums in Allegany County that have ballrooms with a maximum seating of 300 people.
And in Washington, a handful of bills could relax the regulations on alcohol in movie theaters. There is currently a limit on how many seats per screen you can have to serve alcohol; legislators want to up this from 120 to 300. Two companion bills would also repeal the maximum amount of screens per theater, currently at four, and repeal the requirement that tabletops should be provided in the theater.
There might be good news for sports fans in South Carolina and Maryland. In the former, alcohol sales could be allowed in soccer stadiums (in addition to motorsports, tennis and baseball stadiums, where they are already permitted). In the latter, a bill under consideration would repeal a ban on alcohol sales outside dining and club areas at sports venues in Harford County. (The county's one pro-sports venue is Ripken Stadium, home to baseball's Aberdeen IronBirds.)
If you like your entertainment on the quieter side, a bookstore liquor license for beer and wine might be coming to Annapolis, Maryland, as long as said bookstore derives at least 70 percent of its revenue from actual books. The proposed bill specifies that the alcohol can only be sold during an event like a lecture or reading, and that the revenue from this cannot exceed 17 percent per day. And in art galleries in Tennessee, wine can currently be served to patrons for free, but only if the art gallery brings in 90 percent of its revenue from actual artwork; a bill would lower this to 80 percent.
In Orlando, Florida, some legislators want to make it easier for smaller, independent restaurants to operate in a newly designated Downtown Restaurant Area. Currently, to obtain a full liquor license you must be able to serve at least 150 customers at one time, have at least 2,500 square feet and have 51 percent of sales derive from food. A bill would exempt restaurants from these restrictions within this designated area.
Lawmakers are often concerned about where and when we drink or buy alcohol. In Hawaii, a bill under consideration would prohibit bathers from drinking alcohol less than 1,000 yards away from a shoreline. In Illinois, a proposed bill would repeal the restriction on alcohol sales less than 100 feet from Chicago churches. And in Indiana, some representatives want to allow alcohol sales to be made from "a portable structure or cart" on a golf course.
Sunday alcohol sales are always a hot topic. Lawmakers in Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Maryland's Baltimore County are considering bills that would allow Sunday off-premise alcohol sales. Tennessee would direct the revenue toward a scholarship fund for low-income children.
West Virginia is also considering a repeal on its ban of alcohol sales on election days and Christmas Day (but none of this before 1 p.m.), and Oklahoma might allow sales on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. New York currently permits Sunday sales, but not until noon for off-premise; a proposed bill would allow sales to begin at 10 a.m. Another bill would allow sales to begin at 8 a.m. and also permit sales on Christmas Day.
Some Georgia legislators also want to bring the time of their Sunday sales forward, from 12:30 p.m. to 11 a.m., but only for on-premise establishments that get at least 50 percent of their revenue from food sales. If the bill passes, it will be subject to referendum by municipalities.
A Kansas bill would extend the state's overall alcohol sales hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oklahoma has two additional bills on this subject: One that would allow sales from 8 a.m. (currently 10 a.m.) and one that would push back the 10 p.m. limit to midnight. Wisconsin has a proposal on the table to extend retail sales at wineries from 9 p.m. to midnight. And in Tennessee, wine festivals currently can only last for a maximum of 72 hours; some legislators want to extend the fun to 96 hours.
Good news for members of nonprofit swim clubs in Virginia: The state might allow you to bring your own alcohol to the club. In the same vein, a bill in Indiana would legalize corkage at restaurants—patrons could bring a bottle of wine with them to dinner, as long as they are purchasing a meal.
Washington might legalize wine growlers (excluding fortified wine; beer is already permitted). New Mexico legislators are considering allowing people to remove a bottle of partially consumed wine from a winery. In Florida, removing wine is legal as long as you've purchased a meal at the on-premise establishment, but a new proposal could eliminate two caveats to the meal: that it be "full-course" and "consisting of a salad or vegetable, entrée, a beverage, and bread."
In New York, patrons might be allowed to leave an on-premise establishment with an open glass of alcohol and consume it within an area designated by the local municipality as a "leisure and recreation district."
In Oklahoma, a bill would mandate that a glass of wine sold could not be more than 8 ounces. Like many states in 2017, Hawaii could lower the minimum blood-alcohol content (BAC) level for the offense of driving under the influence (DUI) from 0.08 percent to 0.05. And in New Mexico, a requirement that all wine and beer sales at restaurants have to be purchased with a meal is under consideration; the bill specifies that the meal has to include an entrée, and not just "an appetizer, snack or dessert."
But elsewhere, some restrictions could be loosened. In Nebraska, a bill would allow people to manufacture alcohol without a license, as long as it's not for sale. This includes home alcohol making for personal use, but also for donation to nonprofits and festivals where the liquor is not sold. The same bill also allows the maker to conduct tasting groups at their home or a (consenting) licensed establishment, where drinks "may be exchanged, consumed, and scored in a competitive fashion."
And good news in Iowa: Currently, new residents can apply for a waiver to personally move their wine to their new home, but only up to 1 liter—not even a magnum's worth! A proposed bill would up the limit to 9 liters, or one case.
Commercial airlines that operate in West Virginia would be exempt from having to obtain a liquor license with the state to do so, if one bill should pass. For on-premise establishments in Mississippi that "operate solely in water," a bill would add some restrictions: Boats would have to be certified to carry at least 150 passengers and/or have overnight accommodations for at least 50, and operate primarily in the waters of Mississippi. Back on solid ground, the governor in Colorado signed a bill earlier this month that removes the 30-day period that a manufacturer or importer previously had to wait before importing alcoholic products.
There may be good news for younger wine drinkers: New Hampshire legislators are considering lowering the drinking age from 21 to 20, and Oklahoma legislators could allow minors to enter a package store or retailer with an overage parent or legal guardian. One Louisiana lawmaker has proposed allowing 19- and 20-year-olds to drink if they pass a course on potential dangers of alcohol. Kansas has introduced a bill that would define alcoholic candy as a type of alcohol.
In Virginia, the legislature is considering creating a special license plate that would bear the message "first in wine," celebrating Jamestown settlers' failed attempts to start America's wine industry. Some New Jersey lawmakers want to declare the last week of September as "New Jersey Wine Week." But in the same state, another bill would prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Does New Jersey really want Prohibition 2.0? The state senator who introduced the bill seems to want it … interestingly, he is also a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana in the Garden State.
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