The Wine Curmudgeon buys wine from an out-of-state retailer – even though it’s illegal
A case of Domaine Tariquet was delivered via Fed Ex to Wine Curmudgeon international headquarters in Dallas this week. The shipment violated the laws of two states – that of the retailer who sold me the wine, and Texas, which forbids shipments from out-of-state wine retailers. Welcome to the sham and hypocrisy that is the three-tier system.
Why a sham? Because the liquor cops in Texas and in the retailer’s state both know I bought the wine, since Fed Ex and UPS send so-called common carrier reports to the agencies. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission received the electronic paperwork saying the order was shipped to my house; the retailer’s state alcoholic enforcement agency got the same thing when the order was shipped.
I’m not going to name the retailer or its state; let the liquor authorities do their own investigating. Click the links to see the address label and the alcohol warning label that said the package wasn’t olive oil. Also, everyone quoted in this post was given confidentiality, since I committed a crime with my purchase.
So why did my reverse sting operation work? Because each state doesn’t always enforce the interstate retail ban, according to a prominent liquor law attorney.
“It’s not high on the list of priorities,” he told me. “Most of the time, unless someone objects to that kind of sale, they don’t do anything about it. It’s like enforcing the speed limit on a highway. The police may not enforce it for a long time because they have other things to do – until someone complains about speeding, and then they set up a speed trap.”
And, now – hypocrisy
Interstate retail shipping is banned in most of the U.S. in the interest of “public health and safety” – the legal doctrine that has overseen liquor law since the end of Prohibition. Yet, more than a century later, state regulators and legislators still insist that it’s not safe for me to order wine from a retailer in another state. Yet, if it’s so dangerous, why isn’t it enforced more often?
The answer can be found in the July 8 decision by the Ohio attorney general to sue Wine.com and six other interstate retailers for selling wine to Ohio residents in violation of the state’s interstate shipping ban. Yet, according to two people with knowledge of the attorney general’s suit, Wine.com has been selling wine in Ohio in violation of the ban for more than a decade – and the Ohio Division of Liquor Control knew it was doing so and exchanged letters with the company acknowledging the practice.
The July 8 lawsuit, says the prominent liquor attorney, fits a pattern – interstate shipping bans are often enforced only when wholesalers and distributors press the issue. In Ohio, Wine.com and the other retailers weren’t buying from Ohio distributors, as required by law, but from distributors in other states. This lost business, combined with the dramatic drop in restaurant wine sales during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing legal direct-to-consumer wine shipments in Ohio, probably had the wholesalers “crapping in their pants,” e-mailed an Ohio wine business consultant who has worked with the state’s distributors. No wonder, he wrote, that they pressured Ohio authorities to sue the interstate retailers in an attempt to redirect the lost business and revenue their way.
So where’s the public health and safety?
And, in fact, the news release announcing the lawsuit barely mentioned “public health and safety.” Instead, it emphasized lost tax revenue and lost retail sales, quoting an Ohio retailer and distributor. In addition, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, the national distributor trade group, issued a news release saying the same things. The attorney general’s spokesman didn’t respond to two requests for an interview for this post.
Keep in mind that this post isn’t about defending an illegal practice. If anyone violated the law, they should be punished, whether Wine.com (which is a long-time supporter of the blog) or me. And this post doesn’t advocate selling liquor without regulations — we certainly need regulation, but regulations that are fair and efficient.
Because selective enforcement isn’t either. If interstate wine shipping is truly dangerous, then the ban needs to be enforced. Because if the ban isn’t enforced, then it follows that interstate shipping isn’t as dangerous as it’s supposed to be. And if that’s the case, why have the ban at all?