If you're a wine-loving tourist to Seattle from some states, you can forget about shipping home a case of that rare vino.
If you’re a wine-loving tourist to Seattle, you might find your way to The Tasting Room. Modeled after European wine caves, the musky warehouse full of wine barrels near Pike Place Market on Post Alley is a showroom for seven of Washington’s boutique vintners.
But if you’re visiting from such states as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, you can forget about shipping home a case of that rare Wilridge Nebbiolo from Red Mountain. Shipping to Florida and three other so-called “felony” states could land you behind bars.
“People get angry,” said Paul Beveridge, co-founder of the Tasting Room and owner of Wilridge Winery. “They say to me ‘This is America. What do you mean I can’t have wine shipped to my home?’ I try to apologize, but the damage to my business is already done.”
Beveridge’s predicament is faced by hundreds of premium, limited-production wineries that would like to ship directly to out-of-state consumers but can’t because of a patchwork of Prohibition-era liquor laws and regulators in Olympia.
Wine lovers had hoped a Supreme Court decision in May would end the decades-old war that pitted wineries and their loyal clientele against wholesale distributors.
The court did strike down laws in Michigan and New York that allowed in-state vintners but not out-of-state rivals to ship directly to consumers. But it required only that states level the playing field.
“The court refused to say which is the superior law of the land, the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, or the commerce clause,” said Beveridge, who’s also an attorney. “The intent was to open the wine market up, but things are only getting more complicated.”
For the state’s 360 wineries, the result is 40 percent of the country’s wine market remains off limits, with some states tightening shipping laws, not relaxing them.
Today in Olympia, the Liquor Control Board will decide whether to expedite rule making to allow Washington wineries to ship directly to consumers in New York.
After the Supreme Court ruling, New York redrafted its laws to open its wine market, the second-biggest in the U.S. The New York market represented 8 percent of wine consumption last year.
The new rules require that out-of-state wineries pay a $125 annual licensing fee and that there is a guarantee New York wineries would have similar shipping privileges in the applicant’s home state.
Liquor authorities in California and Oregon took action this summer satisfying New York’s request. Since August, 93 wineries from California and 12 from Oregon have been licensed, with dozens of applications pending, the New York liquor authority said.
Washington has not acted, which could handicap the state’s $3 billion wine industry.
“With the holiday season approaching, we don’t want to see our competitors get a head start,” said Tim Hightower, owner of Hightower Cellars in the Yakima Valley’s Red Mountain grape-growing region. Hightower is a member of the Washington Wine Institute, an independent organization of dues-paying member wineries.
Wineries claim that without intervention by the Liquor Board, they could be kept out of the Empire State until the Washington Legislature takes up the issue next year as part of revamping state liquor laws. Hightower says enactment could be delayed until spring.
Liquor Board staff members downplay expectations for swift action.
“It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening over the next two months, but people lose sight of the fact that we’re all pushing towards the same goal,” said Rick Garza, deputy director. “We just want to make sure it’s done right, in accordance with state laws.”
Washington’s delay is perplexing, say industry observers, because the state has been at the forefront of promoting interstate wine trade. Along with California, it spearheaded a campaign in the 1980s to sign reciprocal accords with a dozen states to allow the untaxed direct shipment of wine.
Those accords, akin to mini-free trade agreements, were all but rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court case, attorneys say.
Across the country, states are scrambling to address the implications of the court’s call for “evenhandedness” with regard to widely different rules on taxes, permit fees and often onerous bureaucratic filings.
“It’s like practicing law in the Balkans,” said Corbin Houchins, an attorney at Graham & Dunn who compiles a 20-page compendium on each state’s direct-shipping laws.
Larger wineries have so far ignored the direct-shipping debate because the bulk of their wines are handled by wholesalers and sold by major retailers.
For example, of the 4 million cases annually produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, less than half of 1 percent is shipped directly to consumers.
Wholesale distributors, who typically receive 30 percent of the retail price of a bottle of wine, are in no hurry to encourage competition from the boutique winery business.
“The day buying a case of wine is as easy as buying a book on Amazon, my sales would increase threefold,” said Beveridge, who relies on the bare feet of volunteers to crush grapes at his basement winery in Madrona. “Shipping just 100 cases a year would be a huge boost to my business.”
Devotees of Washington wine also would raise their glasses.
When Seattle resident George Gilchrist moved to Virginia a few years ago, he carried with him a love for Washington wines. Since then, he’s tried to become a wine-club member of Wineglass Cellars in the Yakima Valley so that he can share their Cabernet at the tastings he regularly hosts.
“I wrote a letter [to Wineglass Cellars] pleading with them to rescue me from a life doomed to drinking Virginia wine. I even offered to pay the permit,” Gilchrist said. “But the red tape was so onerous, they said they couldn’t do it.”
Instead, Wineglass and other wineries report getting strong warnings whenever they unwittingly violate a state’s arcane shipping rules.
“It’s the complete opposite of the direct-from-grower, farmer’s-market-like approach that consumers — especially fine-wine consumers — want,” said Jeremy Benson, executive director of Free the Grapes, a Napa, Calif.-based nonprofit group.
“If weren’t for arcane shipping laws, this would be a very healthy business.”
Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or email@example.com