You Can Buy Wine Online—As Long As You Can Be There in Person


In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned restrictions on wine sales that discriminated against out-of-state vintners. Since then (and before then too), liquor wholesalers have sought to protect their government-granted privileges by portraying direct shipment of boutique wines as the average teenager's favorite way to catch a buzz. In Indiana, for instance, preventing underage alcohol purchases is the rationale for a requirement that any consumer seeking to have wine delivered directly to his home must first have a "face-to-face meeting" with the producer, which is not exactly convenient if you live in Indianapolis and your favorite winery is in California or Oregon. Several Indiana consumers challenged this rule, arguing that it puts out-of-state wineries at a disadvantage.

In a decision (PDF) issued a couple of weeks ago, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit disagreed. Although visiting one California winery might be more difficult for a Hoosier than visiting one Indiana winery, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote, "Many oenophiles vacation in wine country, and on a tour through Napa Valley to sample the vintners' wares a person could sign up for direct shipments from dozens of wineries." By contrast, "Wine tourism in Indiana is less common, and the state's vineyards—which altogether have fewer than 350 acres under cultivation—are scattered around the state, making it hard for anyone to sign up at more than a few of Indiana's wineries."

Easterbrook likewise was not impressed by the argument that requiring an adult's signature upon delivery and/or online verification of age would be at least as effective at preventing sales to teenagers as requiring face-to-face contact between buyer and seller. Nor does it matter, he said, that teenagers have plenty of other ways to obtain alcohol that do not involve paying premium wine prices and waiting a week or two for delivery. "It is important to remember that we are dealing with effects on the margin," he wrote. "Make it easier for minors to get wine by phone or Internet, and sales to minors will increase."

Although the court left the face-to-face requirement intact, it did overturn a rule barring any winery that sells directly to retailers in other states (thereby acting as "its own wholesaler") from shipping wine to consumers in Indiana. "The statute is neutral in terms," Easterbrook noted, "but in effect it forbids interstate shipments direct to Indiana's consumers, while allowing intrastate shipments."

In short, Indiana oenophiles who find the selection offered by local retailers inadequate may now enjoy the convenience of having any wine they like shipped directly to their homes, as long as they're willing to travel across the country for the privilege.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the tip.]