Game Theory, the Prisoner's Dilemma and... Winery Membership Organizations, Part 1
Why we haven't offered red-only and white-only options for wine club members... and why we're doing it now

Our crazy state alcohol laws: a farce in nine acts

You probably don't need me to tell you our alcohol laws are often crazy. But, well, our alcohol laws are crazy, particularly if you look at the state and local level.  The national level, for what little it has to do with alcohol, tends to be positive, like the Granholm v. Heald decision that helped reduce protectionism and create a more level playing field for American wineries.  State alcohol laws shelter behind the 21st Amendment's protection -- written in the aftermath of prohibition -- that gives them broad leeway to write laws to suit their local mores about alcohol.  Of course, that protection, which was intended to allow states or counties to remain alcohol-free, has allowed powerful constituencies to write protections for themselves into their state's alcohol legislation. The results can be frustrating, infuriating, unexpected and even funny.  Here are a few favorites:

  • Minimum markup laws.  In Ohio, retailers and wholesalers are required by law to mark up wine a minimum amount: 33% at the wholesale level, and either 40% (on cases) or 50% (on individual bottles) at retail.  Written into the law is a remarkable justification: "to prevent abuses caused by the disorderly and unregulated sale of wine ... prevent aggressive sales practices that improperly stimulate purchase and consumption ... discourage intemperate consumption of alcoholic beverages ... eliminate discriminatory sales practices that threaten the survival of wholesale distributors and retail permit holders". The admission at the end is breathtakingly honest: that "the survival of wholesale distributors and retail permit holders" is a goal of the legislation.  Typically, price competition -- the foundation of the capitalist system -- is protected, not labeled a "discriminatory sales practice".
  • Price posting. Many states require that wine wholesalers post the price at which they're offering their products, and then enforce with varying degrees of rigor that no customer is given preferential treatment. In New York, for example, you are required to post the price that any licensee will pay for your wines.  You are allowed (expected) to offer a better price if someone buys 2 or 3 or 5 cases than if they buy just one. In Oregon, wholesalers are required to post prices per bottle, and are not allowed to offer discounts on quantity (or to charge extra to deliver purchases of just a few bottles).  On the other hand, they're also not allowed to extend credit, so they receive payment at the time of delivery.  That helps with the cash flow problems created by all the tiny deliveries!
  • Franchise laws.  In some twenty states (AR, CT, DE, GA, ID, KS, MA, ME, MI, MO, MT, NC, NM, NJ, NV, OH, TN, VA, VT, and WI) once you've chosen a distributor to represent you, you cannot leave that distributor and move to another even if they perform badly, lose their key personnel, or are purchased by another firm. There are in some cases exceptions to these franchise laws -- or review boards to which you can appeal with cause -- but in every case, it tilts the balance of the playing field even further toward the state-licensed distributor.  I wrote about this at length last year in the article the costs of state alcohol franchise laws.
  • The Johnstown Flood Tax.  In Pennsylvania, which sells all its wine and liquor through state-run stores, all alcohol sales are assessed an 18% tax earmarked to pay for repairs from the Johnstown Flood.  Which happened in 1936.
  • Wet, dry and damp counties.  In Texas, like much of the south and midwest, there are counties that are "wet", where alcohol may be sold.  There are counties that are "dry", where it may not be sold.  But there are also quite a few counties where wine may only be sold if it is 14% alcohol or less.  I remember doing a presentation to our sales team there and having many of the reps making notes on which of our wines they could sell, and which they couldn't because those wines were on the wrong side of the 14% law.
  • State control.  In Wyoming, you are not allowed to sell a wine without being with a state-licensed broker.  And by sell, I mean talk about.  You aren't really selling the wine anyway; the state of Wyoming is the only licensed wholesaler.  But their job pretty much stops at warehousing and delivery.  If you want to help convince the local retailers and restaurants that they should ask the state of Wyoming to deliver your wine, you'd better be with someone with a license.  Same thing in a few other states.  Want to pour wine at a festival in Maine?  You'd better get the state license.
  • Direct shipping protectionism.  The arcane barriers to direct shipping, nearly all erected to protect wholesalers but couched in language about encouraging responsible alcohol consumption or ensuring the collection of tax revenue, could fill a post by themselves.  There are still roughly a dozen states that effectively prohibit all wine being shipped in, but (like with dry counties) that's a choice. The ones that get me are the inexplicable ones, like Maine not allowing us to ship half-bottles there (minimum size: 750ml). Or states like Rhode Island, South Dakota, Arizona and Delaware that allow us to ship wine if the customer makes an in-person purchase here, but not if they pick up their phone and call us, or want to order online.  Or those with bizarre or minimal limits per month or year, like South Dakota's limit of 5 bottles per shipment, Texas's limit of 46 bottles per individual per calendar month, or Wyoming's limit of 2 cases per household per year.  Or (and this starts to go from ridiculous to serious) those with capacity caps, the distributor lobby's wedge issue of choice at the moment. Arizona decided that wineries that produce fewer than 20,000 gallons per year -- conveniently, just above the size of Arizona's largest winery -- can ship to consumers, while larger wineries like us can't. These encroachments and others like them will get increasingly onerous unless people stand up. Free the Grapes is a great place to start.
  • Sampling restrictions.  In Vermont, you are not allowed to sample multiple accounts on a single bottle of wine.  In fact, you are not allowed to bring a sample of wine into a licensed establishment.  If you, as a winery or distributor representative, want to show a wine to an account, you have to convince the account to buy the wine from the warehouse, then you have to buy it from the establishment, open it and taste it with the proprietor, and then repeat the same process at each stop in your work day.  You can imagine how well this works.
  • Massachusetts.  Finally, we'll devote a paragraph to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which passed a direct shipping law so obviously anticompetitive -- the sponsors explained in the legislature, during the debate about the law that the law's limits were set so as to allow all the in-state wineries to ship to consumers while prohibiting as many out-of-state wineries as possible -- that a federal court declared it unconstitutional. Of course, this declaration was moot, because the law also contained a clause making the common carrier (think UPS or FedEx) liable if they delivered a shipment to a consumer in excess of the 26 cases/household/year aggregate limit.  Think about this.  The carrier is supposed to know whether or not this customer has bought more than the aggregate limit already that year, that could have been delivered by another carrier.  Even before the law was invalidated, both UPS and FedEx announced that they wouldn't accept any shipment bound for the state, and now, four years later, nothing has changed, though there's a glimmer of hope, as the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a budget that includes reasonable wine shipping provisions.  It's now awaiting action at the state Senate.  If you live there, or know any wine lovers who do, there's a template at Free the Grapes that will help you ask them to move it forward.

Perhaps the most surprising thing from my perspective is the degree to which the restaurants, retailers and consumers in these different states accept the status quo.  Nearly all of these laws enrich some entrenched interest at the expense of the consumer.  Wineries, restaurants and retailers are often collateral damage.  As much fun as this craziness can be, I, for one, would like to order a little sanity.  But I'm not holding my breath.