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Federal lawmakers weighing regulations of direct-to-consumer wine shipping

May 14, 2010 | 12:11 pm

Grapes California’s wine makers – and frankly, U.S. wine producers in general – are in such a fury over a recently proposed bit of federal legislation that a group of them have dubbed May as the unofficial “Grape Liberation Month.”

What’s the buzz about? At issue is whether consumers can order wine directly from wineries, and whether wineries can ship directly to consumers.

Among other things, the proposed Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act would, if passed, increase regulation on interstate alcohol sales. And H.R. 5034 would block direct shipping between consumers and those who sell wine and other forms of alcohol in the U.S. (If you want to read the latest public draft of the bill, click here.)

Some of those advocating for the bill are state leaders and alcohol wholesalers. They say such a law is needed to help states control sales, curtail underage drinking and help prevent lawsuits being filed by consumers (and wineries) who want barriers lifted on direct sales.

Those cases reportedly have been on the rise since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the country’s highest court ruled that Michigan and New York's regulatory systems were discriminating in favor of local businesses without justification: The court found that states can't bar out-of-state wineries from shipping wine directly to consumers while they let in-state wineries do it.

The bill’s critics, of course, are the wineries and consumers who say the bill is little more than a bid by wholesalers to squash competition.

Wine fans are rallying online against H.R. 5034, including a couple of Facebook groups (here and here, with a total of nearly 20,000 members and counting) dedicated to block the bill. And the Wine Institute, a lobbying group for the California wine industry, seemed to be cozying up to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently: She recently was given the group's annual leadership award, according to the San Francisco Business Times.

There’s even an official anti-legislation toast, offered up by Free The Grapes, a coalition of consumers and wineries from across the U.S. Check it out here.

--P.J. Huffstutter

Graphic credit: Free the Grapes