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Pass the pinot: Buying wine from home may get harder

Bill threatens direct shipments in Mass.

Wine lovers might want to sit down for this: Unlike most other states, Massachusetts is considering making it harder to buy wine online or through the mail.

The legislation being drafted is the Commonwealth's response to a US Supreme Court decision in May that requires states to treat homegrown and out-of-state vineyards equally.

Currently, Massachusetts consumers can have local wineries and businesses with state alcohol licenses, such as Wine.com, ship directly to their homes. But out-of-state vineyards and retailers are prohibited from delivering shipments to Massachusetts residents.

Rather than open the Commonwealth to all direct wine shipments, like most other states, some Massachusetts lawmakers are looking to halt the flow of direct shipments altogether. This would prevent local consumers from getting wine shipped directly to their homes, whether it's from online sites, local vineyards, or mail-order companies.

Opponents say such a move would force all vineyards to sell wine through wholesalers who then distribute the wine to liquor stores and restaurants. Consumers could only buy in face-to-face sales at the wineries or in retail stores at a markup. Critics of the legislation, being drafted by the state's Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, say that wholesalers are largely the ones that stand to benefit from the ban.

''This is the most Draconian and cynical response imaginable to the Supreme Court decision," said Kip Kumler, owner of Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln. ''This would put all Massachusetts wineries out of business and not be a benefit to consumers in any way."

For Kristina Lazzari, co-owner of the Cape Cod Winery in Falmouth, a ban on direct shipments would hurt the local winery tremendously.

''We've been unable to find a distributor interested in carrying our wine," Lazzari said. ''We don't mark up the wines tremendously and wholesalers take such a large cut of the profit."

Currently, 31 states allow vineyards to ship directly to consumers. Following the Supreme Court decision, lawmakers in New York and Connecticut relaxed their wine laws to permit out-of-state vineyards to directly ship wine to their residents. At the same time, court challenges have also forced Ohio and Florida to allow out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers, according to Carol Martel, northeastern counsel for the Wine Institute, an advocacy group representing California wineries.

A similar case brought against Massachusetts by Stonington Vineyards in Connecticut and two Massachusetts residents is expected to be heard this year in federal court.

''Having a three-tier system allows us to preserve taxes and ensures proper policing," said state Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat who heads the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

That committee plans to meet within two weeks and get a bill in front of the Legislature before the federal court has a chance to rule on the Massachusetts case. The group is also considering allowing small wineries that cannot get wholesalers to distribute their wines to skip the middleman and ship directly to retailers and restaurants -- but not consumers.

Advocates of blocking direct wine sales in Massachusetts say the sale of all wine through wholesalers not only meets the Supreme Court requirements, but also allows the state to ensure that wine is sold to the right people and kept away from minors. Moreover, having wholesalers handle the wines ensures that proper taxes will be collected from out-of-state buyers.

''It's not a flannel shirt from L.L. Bean," said Robert Buckley, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts. ''I can't for the life of me -- nor can anyone else in this industry -- find a good reason for anyone to make it easier to procure alcohol."

But the Supreme Court didn't buy that thinking. In its ruling, the court said that the states provided little evidence the purchase of wine over the Internet by minors is a problem and that a recent study by the Federal Trade Commission showed states allowing direct wine shipments reported no problems with minors' increased access to wine.

''It's a blatant power grab by the wholesalers," said Jeremy Benson, executive director of Free the Grapes, a national coalition of consumers and wineries that seeks to remove restrictions on direct shipping.

The Massachusetts ban would not affect the purchase and sale of wine in liquor stores. But aficionados of local vintages would find it more difficult to purchase wines that are not sold through wholesalers, and it would be impossible to get coveted California vintages shipped directly to their homes.

The legislation being drafted by the state committee is expected to loosely follow Maryland's law, which prohibits all direct shipments to consumers and makes any violation a felony.

The Maryland law permits vineyards to sell wine face-to-face at their wineries. Residents seeking vintages not available in retail stores can only buy them through special orders placed with the wholesalers that distribute them.

''We are held hostage by our law," said Carolyn Beachy of Chestertown, Md., who said one special order of Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate Meritage 2002 had added $60 in handling and other fees to the cost of two cases. ''Most retailers will not do this for you and direct is not at all what it is."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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