Eric Asimov and the New York Wine Dilemma

Eric AsimovEric Asimov regularly reminds us why his 2004 ascension to “Chief Wine Critic” at the New York Times was a good idea. The reminder almost always comes in the form of the enthusiasm that is exhibited in his writing on wine. But just as important, Asimov possesses an almost intuitive sense for what is the right question to ask.

This important aspect of Asimov’s approach to wine reporting was on display today when the headline over his weekly column read: “Why Can’t You Find That Wine?

His answer to the question is the right one:

“First, wine distribution in the United States is regulated by an irrational patchwork of laws, and second, small producers often create wines that are more intriguing and distinctive but less available.”

His response to this dilemma of not being able to find the wines you want was to suggest that the wine lover be willing to try a replacement suggested by a talented wine clerk at a retail establishment or a sommelier in a restaurant. This is a good idea.

His second suggestion was to use services like wine-searcher.com or snooth.com or cellartracker.com to search the various online retail outlets to find the wine you want. Another good idea. However, there is something to be said here:

If you live in New York and if you find that wine you want from a retailer on the Internet and if you have it shipped to your from outside New York…That’s illegal. New York law makes it illegal to have wine shipped into the state from out-of-state retailers.

Now if you are buying wine from an out-of-state winery and having shipped into NY, that is legal. But if you want an imported wine (French, German, Spanish, Italian, New Zealand, etc.) shipped to you in New York from out-of-state that is illegal because only retailers sell and ship imported wines.

In fact, to make it simple, only in the following states is it legal to have a French wine shipped to you from out-of-state retailers: AK, OR, CA, NM, NV, NE, WY, ND, LA, VA, WV, DC, NH, MO. Everywhere else: Illegal.

Why is this the case? Why will Mr. Asimov’s New York readers be involved in law breaking if they use his suggestion, find the wine they want on Wine-Searcher.com, then order it from out-of-state? It’s a complicated question with a complicate answer. So, let’s break it down in a very simple way:

1. Lazy Judges

2. NY liquor wholesalers made powerful through campaign contributions

3. NY Politicians corrupted by campaign contributions from powerful liquor wholesalers

4. NY retailers who, while willingly shipping outside their state, want competitive protection and are unwilling to go to bat for their local customers who might want to buy from out-of-state sources

However, if you are a wine lover in NY or just about any of the states not listed above, despair not: You can probably easily find an out-of-state wine retailer with the wine you want who will ship it to you, despite the law prohibiting that. The simple reality is that there is very little enforcement of the laws that prohibit the direct shipment of wine into states where that practice is prohibited.

Despite the recent call by the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA) for New Jersey’s great wine shop, Wine Library, to stop shipping into New York, the NYSLA really has no interest in enforcing the state’s ban on out-of-state retailers shipping into NY.

All that said, if you are interested in helping bring an end to the various anti-consumer shipping law across the country, I recommend joining The American Wine Consumer Coalition.


17 Responses

  1. Bill Mciver - February 12, 2014

    Tom, when we started challenging the 3-tier system, it took us years to just get a case before a judge, so except for reason 1 (Lazy Judges), the others are the same arguments we used in 1990. Time marches on, and the mafia-bred middle men still rule by political bribery.
    1. Lazy Judges
    2. NY liquor wholesalers made powerful through campaign contributions
    3. NY Politicians corrupted by campaign contributions from powerful liquor wholesalers
    4. NY retailers who, while willingly shipping outside their state, want competitive protection and are unwilling to go to bat for their local customers who might want to buy from out-of-state sources

  2. Bill Haydon - February 12, 2014

    Out of curiosity, are those who condemn the influence of the wine wholesaler lobby bought through political contributions also willing to condemn the system that makes it possible? Are they for the overturning of Citizens United? The amending of our constitution to remove the concept of “personhood” for a corporation? The removal of ALL corporate influence from our legislative process? And even possibly the public funding of elections?

    Personally, I want to see all of the above. I want to see the influence of the wine and spirits wholesalers removed from the making of the laws which regulate them. I also want to see that influence removed for Family Winemakers of California, the California Grape Growers, the Insurance lobby, the Oil Industry and everybody else who isn’t an individual citizen (i.e. with a pulse, not a corporate charter).

    One can’t bemoan the influence a group that one opposes without also seeing the same corruption and threat to democracy in the use of the very same system by a group with whom one is sympathetic without being a rank hypocrite.

  3. Tom Wark - February 12, 2014

    I’m with you Bill on the absurdity of the Citizens United decision and would love to see it overturned.

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  5. Carl - February 13, 2014

    You list New Hampshire (my state) as a shippable into state. The law actually requires the shipper to pay taxes, which of course are passed on to the recipient. This is a very tough law to enforce.

    We buy a lot of wine from a California Winery and one in New York. The CA folks pay the tax, and the NY one doesn’t.

  6. csm - February 13, 2014

    Keep the fight going Tom. Think Eric purposely timed this article with the “at rest” fight here in NY?

  7. William Hughes - February 13, 2014

    Tom,
    I want to see more wine writers, whether in printed form or in a blog, come right out and tell their readerships to support the AWCC. That, however, is only part of the call to action for wine consumers. These same writers should ask their readers to write or phone their representatives in their respective legislatures or to meet them at town hall meetings. An email or a phone call will take less than five minutes to complete.

    • csm - February 14, 2014

      This web-site was set-up by a group of small Distributors trying to fight the “at rest” legislation in NY. http://stopthecorktax.com/ They make it easy to write the legislators responsible for such un-balanced laws. Same should be done for all the states then more people would do it.

      Maybe AWCC could create such on their site and make a template that allows wineries and retailers to put such a thing on their checkout pages.

  8. Pamela Heiligenthal - February 13, 2014

    Tom, although I agree with much that was written on Asimov’s article as well as your response, I think there is a lot more here to consider… (1) total case production (2) how many cases enter/stay the U.S. market, (3) how much wine is sold exclusively to restaurants. Knowing this information will give us an indication of how much product is available…

    300 cases export cases sold to restaurants will tell us that Bolder, Biloxi, and Buffalo may never see this wine! We can’t lay blame on wholesalers or corrupted politicians…it is simply limited supply.

    Like Asimov, I might write about a small producer who has limited supply but I make it clear in the review that finding the wine might be harder than heck to track down; I include things like case production, restaurant sales, import/export info. It is one of those details that some may not care about just like ABV (and some may wonder why the heck the info is there) but I include as much information as I can and let the reader decide what info is useful. I believe case production is the minimal info needed to indicate the possibility of getting my hands on a bottle.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal - February 13, 2014

      Some formatting didn’t work on a sentence above:

      300 cases *minus* export *minus* cases sold to restaurants will give a good indicator that Bolder, Biloxi, and Buffalo may never see this wine! ;’)

    • Tom Wark - February 13, 2014

      Pam,
      Your point about limited supply is well taken. There’s nothing wholesalers can do about that. It’s not their fault at all that many wines are simply unavailable in may places.

      However, if direct shipments were legal by both wineries and retailers, I’m willing to be that a large number of the wines unavailable locally could easily be found in other states and shipped. However, it is the wholesalers who are largely responsible for lobbying successfully against this option.

  9. fredric koeppel - February 14, 2014

    The intricate and contradictory network of state laws dealing with alcoholic beverages and direct shipping is absurd and enforcement equally so. Tennessee is a direct shipping state for wineries but not retailers. However, I bought online a bottle of wine from a well-known store in L.A. and it was shipped to me without a murmur. Not long after, I tried to buy a wine from a store in Washington state and FedEx refused to pick it up to ship to Tennessee. And Pam, I always list the case production of a limited edition wine and tell readers that a wine might require a diligent search to find. I agree with you that it’s only fair to do that.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal - February 14, 2014

      Fredric, I am glad that you include the case production too! It really is a good indicator for understanding the market and how hard it might be to find the wine.

  10. Doug Wilder - February 14, 2014

    This ties into a subject that I recently started to research a little more intently and that is when a blogger reviews a wine, almost always that bottle is sent to them by a winery (or maybe a PR). At the end of the review if there is a ‘find this wine’ hyperlink, they tend to go to WineSearcher, instead of the winery. Why is that? Are they receiving an affiliate code fee from Winesearcher, or do they just assume that by showing the wine is available locally is more of a service to their readers. My first thought is to send the traffic back to the winery and leave it up to them.

    I have had several conversations with small production winemakers about this and most were not aware samples sent were being referred to third parties for purchase. They felt (like I do) that at the very least, a call back to the winery may give them the opportunity to recommend a retailer or restaurant that carries the wine, or possibly add that interested party to their direct list. By doing this, a winery can better determine the value of what someone writes about them.

    Somewhat related to that, I received an unexpected email from a winemaker that I reviewed last year about an introduction made to a retailer I felt would be a good fit for them. He thanked me because the merchant had bought 1/4 of the production of one of his wines. The retailer is one I list on a resource page of my magazine, along with a selection of other independent subscription based writers, bloggers and services, free of charge. Doing so costs me nothing but can result in parties making informed choices.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal - February 14, 2014

      Hi Doug,

      No wine blogger is getting rich by including WineSearcher links in their post. I do it as a service to my readers to make it easier for them to find the wine in their local area. It also gives them options to purchase online if they prefer, with many online options. I typically include a link to the winery somewhere in the post as well to cover all bases. I find it odd that wineries would be upset with this method…not all readers live in a state where shipments are allowed, so if a reader were to call a winery and the winery told them they could not ship to their state, they might loose out on a sale all together due to miscommunicating the policies and regulations. Unless the winery has really strong sales folks answering every call (this is not the case in my experience) I think the winery has a better chance at making a sale with links to online retailers and local stores.

  11. doug wilder - February 15, 2014

    Pamela, thanks for your insights. The reader service explanation is sensible, even though WineSearcher only includes some of the places that may carry a wine. I can’t think of an entity better equipped to know where a wine is distributed, and the policies/regulations regarding DTC than the people at the place that made it.

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