The Pour: Wines Are No Longer Free to Travel Across State Lines

But now, states — urged on by wine and spirits wholesalers who oppose any sort of interstate alcohol commerce that bypasses them — have stepped up enforcement efforts. Retailers say that the carriers began sending out letters to them a year ago saying they would no longer handle their shipments.

For consumers who live in states stocked with fine-wine retailers, like New York, the restrictions are an inconvenience. For consumers in states with few retail options, they are disastrous. It’s hard enough outside of major metropolitan areas to find wines from small producers. The crackdown makes it that much harder.

Before the internet, the bigger wine shops sometimes printed periodic catalogs for their customers, particularly around the holidays. If those catalogs found their way into hands in other states and enticed a few far-flung sales, it was no big deal one way or the other.

Broadband changed everything. No longer did retailers have to identify and attract potential customers. With a few clicks of the mouse, eager consumers could seek out wine shops all over the country, scour their inventories and order the bottles they wanted.

“That’s one of the happy miracles of the age,” said Jamie Wolff, an owner of Chambers Street Wines in New York.

Like other retailers I spoke with, Mr. Wolff was not willing to offer precise sales figures, but he said a significant amount of Chambers Street’s business had been from out of state.

“It seems a shame to tell consumers anywhere that they can’t freely purchase something they want,” he said.

Until 2005, many retailers quietly engaged in interstate business without much fuss. But that year, which roughly coincided with the widespread access to high-speed internet, the Supreme Court ruling in Granholm v. Heald effectively lifted many state bans on buying directly from out-of-state wineries.

Though the ruling applied to wineries, not to retailers, Granholm had a liberating effect on consumers who suddenly found it much easier to find the wines they wanted online. The decision also allows the direct shipment of wines purchased by tourists at wineries to all states.

The efforts to curtail interstate shipping, many retailers believe, are a result of heavy lobbying by wine and spirits wholesalers, supported by generous campaign contributions to state legislators and other elected officials. In New York State, for example, wholesalers have given $2.7 million to candidates for office compared with $678,000 donated by retailers, according to the Nation Institute on Money in State Politics.

“Wholesalers have been looking at this issue for quite some time,” said Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Company, a retailer in White Plains. “They went to state liquor authorities and said, ‘People aren’t following the laws.’ Now it’s all coming to a brutal end.”

Photo

Shipping boxes in the basement of Grapes the Wine Company.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Mr. Posner, who also is president of the National Association of Wine Retailers, an advocacy group, said about half of Grapes’ business was with out-of-state clients, primarily in New Jersey and Connecticut. He said the potential ramifications for his small business, with its 12 employees, were huge.

“As in anything in business, this is pure greed,” he said. “There are very few industries that are so regulated. We have an authority that looks over us, that makes sure we pay our bills on time. We have a very rigid system in place, state by state. These wholesalers, they hold all the cards.”

The wholesalers, for their part, insist that their interest is solely to protect consumers from fraud, threats to health and underage drinking.

In a phone conversation, Craig Wolf, president and chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, a trade group, posed a nightmarish scenario of teenagers in New York ordering Thunderbird — the cheap, flavored fortified wine of skid rows and song — from retailers in Nevada.