MASSACHUSETTS IS HOME to some of the nation's most enthusiastic wine drinkers, and Rick Libby of Ipswich is one of them. Libby is the owner of a California winery and the founder of The Traveling Vineyard, which promotes and sells wines through home-based wine tastings around the country. His passion for wines is infused with good humor; on his website and voicemail greeting, Libby identifies himself as "chief grape stomper and head cheerleader."
But when the subject turns to regulation — in particular his home state's bizarre prohibition on the shipment of wine directly to consumers — Libby is frustrated.
"I've had a real civics lesson," he was saying the other day, when I called to ask what progress he had seen since testifying on Beacon Hill last fall in support of a bill, H. 294, allowing Massachusetts residents to have wine shipped to them from wineries in other states. "Here is something that almost everyone is in favor of — a chance to finally fix an antiquated system that should have gone out with the temperance movement." The legislation, written by Representative Ted Speliotis of Danvers, has drawn the support of wine-lovers ranging from Governor Deval Patrick, who has said he would gladly sign the bill, to former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who now operates Doubleback Winery in Washington State.
There seems little reason to doubt that the bill would pass if it were brought to the floor. Yet it remains stuck in limbo, to Libby's mystified consternation. "How can something so popular not get anywhere?" he laments. "Something is going on that I don't understand."
But Speliotis, who has logged 25 years in the Legislature's sausage factory, isn't surprised. Massachusetts liquor laws "haven't changed much since the 1930s," he says. Neither have the tired arguments made against lifting restrictive wine laws. "The fear is that if customers can order wine online and have it shipped to their homes, they'll stop doing business at their local package store." Of course, by that logic legislators should prohibit Massachusetts consumers from having anything delivered to them from out of state that they could buy from a local dealer.
I ask Speliotis what the reaction would be if Massachusetts booksellers lobbied for a ban on buying books directly from publishers, or if local clothing stores demanded that L. L. Bean and Land's End be barred from shipping merchandise to Bay State residents. "Good luck with that," he laughs.
Like all protectionist barriers, Massachusetts wine restrictions hurt the many to benefit the few. The biggest beneficiaries of all are the state's handful of wholesaler/distributors, who enjoy near-monopoly control over the sale of wine produced in out-of-state wineries. If wholesalers don't carry a particular wine, Massachusetts package stores can't sell it to customers, and restaurants can't offer it to diners. But with more than 7,000 wineries large and small in the United States, thousands of new wines are bottled each vintage — far more than any distributor makes available to retailers. That means that countless wines are off-limits to Massachusetts consumers, even though they are readily available for sale to people in other states. And many wines that are sold locally frequently cost a good deal more than they would if it weren't for the hefty markup added by the influential middlemen.
Only a few states (shown in red) still prohibit residents from ordering wine online and having it shipped directly to their homes. Massachusetts lines up on this issue with Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma, and other states with which it doesn't usually find common ground. (Map via Free the Grapes!)
All but 10 states now allow wine to be shipped directly to consumers. Why, Rick Libby wonders, is a state as "progressive and innovative as Massachusetts" still blocking such an obvious reform?
Consumer-friendly wine sales isn't a right-vs.-left issue, but it's hard not to notice that most of the remaining holdouts — including Mississippi, Utah, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Alabama — are not states that Massachusetts lawmakers usually look to for ideological guidance or solidarity. (The other two are Pennsylvania and Delaware.) Few of them are known for a passionate interest in wine. Rank the states in order of per-capita wine consumption, and most of the ones still blocking direct-to-consumer shipping are clustered near the bottom.
But not Massachusetts. In 2013, residents of the Bay State consumed an average of 16.9 liters of wine per person, more than any other state save Vermont and New Hampshire. (In Utah and Mississippi, by contrast, residents annually drink only about 3 liters per capita.) The day is long past when Puritan rectitude suppressed the love of wine in Massachusetts. It's time the state's archaic wine laws caught up to reality.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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