Serious Eats: Drinks

Befuddling Liquor Laws

20080130-wineisfine.jpgIn today's New York Times, Eric Asimov steps into the bizarre and confusing world of U.S. liquor laws.

This topic's been setting parts of the online wine world ablaze in the aftermath of a recent operation in which representatives of Wine.com gathered evidence of rival wine retailers illegally shipping wines to certain states (including New York), and reported those retailers to state authorities. While Wine.com representatives say they're out to change these rules, the event has turned attention to the Byzantine tangle of state laws that came out of the repeal of Prohibition, more than 75 years ago.

Asimov writes: "The attention illuminates the tensions inherent in an Internet economy bound by post-Prohibition laws that created the three-tier system of producers, distributors and retailers, regulated on a state-by-state basis."

As the interstate sale of wine and spirits has blossomed in the Internet era, the rules have only grown muddier. Asimov notes that a 2005 Supreme Court decision on interstate commerce in wine may have created more confusion than it cleared up. Wholesalers and distributors, who benefit from rules that limit the direct sale of wine from producers to consumers, are content to have the system remain the same, arguing that the three-tier approach helps protect consumers from fraud and helps keep alcohol out of the hands of minors. Asimov quotes Craig Wolf, chairman of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, who says most people are fine with the current system, "except for a small, very vocal segment who say they can't get their bottle of 1997 whatever," Wolf says.

Granted, my primary area of interest is spirits and not wine, but there are times when I'm looking for the spirituous equivalent of a bottle of "1997 whatever," and my frustrating state-run liquor system is just standing in my way. At these times, I turn to out-of-state retailers, who approach the world of online commerce in liquor with attitudes ranging from strictly-by-the-book to anything-goes. It's encouraging to see that regulators in my home state of Washington are at least recognizing there's a problem, as Asimov reports: "It's very difficult if not impossible to enforce compliance off the Internet," said Rick Garza, deputy director of the Washington Liquor Control Board. "We know it happens, so creating a license for it, and permits and requirements is probably the best course, rather than ignoring it."

Clearly, the current system is archaic and confusing; clarification and a possible change of the rules are needed. What's your take? Have you been stymied in your search for a particular vintage or bottling because of your state's liquor laws? And are you concerned that changing the laws would lead to chaos for consumers?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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