As I sit down to write this week’s column, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that matters a lot to me. And if you’re reading this column, it probably means something to you too. I’m talking of course about a case in which small, independently owned family wineries from New York and Michigan are challenging the constitutionality of their states’ laws and prohibitions regarding the interstate marketing, shipping and sale of wine and liquor.
Utah is one of 24 states that doesn’t allow consumers to have alcohol, including wine, shipped to them from out-of-state producers. The case being considered by the Supreme Court is certain to have an impact, one way or another, on those states.
At the center of the debate is a conflict between Amendment 21 of the U.S. Constitution, which repealed Prohibition in 1933, and the “commerce clause” in Article 1. The latter prevents individual states from creating economic barriers from other states. In other words, living in Utah doesn’t mean that you can’t order a box of chocolates from Godiva in New York City—or for that matter from Brussels—and have it delivered to your doorstep. But at odds with this free-market approach to interstate commerce is Amendment 21, which says explicitly that individual states can regulate the sale and use of alcohol within a state’s borders. Again, 24 states choose to impose those regulations on its consumers, including Utah.
Not surprisingly, one of the key opponents to interstate shipping of wine to consumers is the liquor industry. Large sales and distribution companies handle the bulk of wine and liquor sold in America—including here in Utah—and it’s a very profitable enterprise. Independent wine brokers choose which wines they think will pass the muster of the UDABC here in Zion, and many tend not to favor small, boutique wineries. As one local wine broker recently told me, “It’s just not worth the effort and paperwork to bring in a hundred cases of wine from a small boutique winery in California, when for the same amount of work I can bring in 1,000 cases from a larger winemaker.” So the only way that small boutique wineries can sell their products is to individual consumers, mostly over the Internet.
As expected, the moral right has thrown up a red herring in this case, arguing that allowing wine to be sold over the Internet and shipping to homes will result in “the drenching of minors in illegal alcohol.” Really? I don’t think teenagers who want to get drunk are so organized and patient that they’d order a $45 bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir over the Net, wait 10 days for it to be delivered and then uncork it and get blasted. From my teenage years, I seem to recall that it was pretty easy simply to get an adult to buy a six-pack at 7-Eleven. And besides, in states like New York where wine is produced locally, minors can already order wine delivered to their homes from New York wineries. It seems to me that this is a parenting issue, not one of interstate commerce.
So far, the Supreme Court justices seem skeptical of the claims being made by attorneys for New York and Michigan. Justice Scalia, for example, said that states wishing to ban out-of-state shipments of wine have “a difficult case to make” based on legal precedent. “When you have facial discrimination of out-of-state products, I think the bar is high,” he said.
It’ll probably be springtime before this matter is decided. In the meantime, I’m compiling a list of hard-to-find wines that I’d love to taste.