The Shipping News

Bay State wine-shipping laws continue to keep great bottles out of your hands. A new lawsuit intends to fix that.

If you’ve always thought wine would make a nice gift, especially for the holidays, just try to send a friend a case of your favorite California cabernet. When you call the winery, the first thing you’ll be asked for is a mailing address. Should it turn out that your friend lives in Massachusetts, you’ll likely be greeted with apologies, guffaws, or a dial tone. That’s because our state laws governing interstate direct-to-consumer wine shipments are so onerous, many out-of-state wineries can’t, or won’t, be bothered to deal with them.


A quick bit of background: The wine shipping issue was supposed to have been resolved in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some states, Massachusetts among them, were discriminating against out-of-state vintners. At the time, Massachusetts allowed only in-state wineries to ship directly to consumers; everyone else had to go through local wholesalers (who happily profited from this arrangement). After the court ordered states to apply uniform regulations, 33 states, including New Hampshire and Rhode Island, began to allow direct interstate wine shipments. But the Massachusetts legislature took a different tack, passing a rather creative law that essentially preserved the status quo.

Under the new rules, wineries that produce 30,000 gallons a year or more (which excludes all in-state wineries while including the majority of those out west) can get a Massachusetts permit only if they haven’t worked with a wholesaler in the past six months. Smaller wineries have it easier, in theory. All they have to do is pay $100 for a permit…and fill out such a mess of paperwork that most throw up their hands in exasperation. FedEx and UPS find the regulations so vexing that they refuse to deliver to Massachusetts consumers, leaving DHL as the sole major shipper willing to do so.

Still, some have discovered ways around the roadblocks. Napa Valley’s New Vine Logistics, founded in 2001, funnels individual out-of-state shipments through a network of local wholesalers and retailers. It’s legal, but with each member of the network taking a cut, it gets expensive–as much as $50 in extra charges for a case of wine (see “Going Postal,” right). The best hope lies with a group called Family Winemakers of California, which has filed a suit to overturn the current law. The case is expected to go to summary judgment this winter. Whether they will have the same success as the patriots who tossed tea into Boston Harbor remains to be seen, but at least someone is still trying to make waves.