Next Steps in Direct Shipping: Refining State Laws

Karen Marchione | February 15, 2010

As readers of this blog know, direct-to-consumer shipping has been a watchword among wineries for more than a decade. The result of all of this attention is a national shipping market that allows consumers in 37 states representing 82% of the U.S. population to receive wine purchased off-site legally. Persistent lobbying efforts and the collapse of counterfactual objections have built momentum for state acceptance of winery direct-to-consumer shipping. It is now only a matter of time before the few last holdout states allow winery shipping. But the system is far from perfect.

Many winery shipping laws passed in the last ten years were the best that could be achieved at the time, the result of crucial last minute horse trading and political calculation. Since it was critical to ensure the channel existed, administrative cost and effectiveness often became secondary considerations. While this was practical and necessary, implementation has revealed a system that is often creaky and unwieldy.

While the wine business is lucky to have organizations like ShipCompliant that reduce the hassle of direct shipping, for many wineries the expense and complexity of state regulation make shipping a daunting prospect. The system needs to be simplified and refined to make direct shipping more efficient, cost effective, and reflective of market needs. Not that any of this is going to be easy.

Broadly speaking, we need to accomplish at least three things:

How many pages is this thing? Licensing needs to be less costly and more efficient for both wineries and regulators. Qualifying for a shipper’s license shouldn’t be so burdensome that it discourages small businesses from making use of a tool whose principal object is to help them.

I need to send a 25¢ check? Recordkeeping and reporting requirements need to be made more transparent and practical. Wineries shouldn’t be forced to write a check that costs more to process than its worth, and regulators shouldn’t be asked to sift and retype mountains of paper each month. States could easily follow the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau model of filing electronic reports on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis depending on the prior year’s shipments.

But market support makes shipping work better. States should facilitate use of efficient and practical tools—such as marketing websites and pick-and-pack warehouses—that have developed around direct shipping. Recently, these tools have come under fire with investigations in both California and Virginia. But wineries aren’t trying to do anything unreasonable here. Virtually every industry is allowed to use market aggregators that make the consumer experience for finding niche products better. The wine industry’s goal isn’t to make wine deliveries less secure or accountable, it’s to unlock demand and facilitate fulfillment.

Most states now recognize that shipping can be safely regulated. With new and simpler regulatory models wineries can demonstrate that smarter laws mean better enforcement. States always look to each other for guidance, and nothing relieves administrative concern like a system that functions.

For this reason, state regulators could be real partners in this process. They are as familiar with the problems of winery shipping as wineries themselves and would likely welcome legal refinements that could shift scarce agency resources to ensuring their shipping laws are followed. By working with state ABCs to streamline and reduce the cost of administrative oversight, wineries can build momentum for modifying state shipping laws. We could also ensure that the models that are established work both for regulators and the regulated industry.

Most critically, wineries need to stay involved in the policymaking process and understand the arguments for supporting refinement. To get their voices heard, wineries must speak with the strength of their grassroots, a clear voice, and irrefutable logic. As any winery that has been through the last decade knows, this is the only way to ensure that winery policy works better.

by Cary M. Greene, Esq.