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Wine Shipping 101: Sorry, That’s a Felony

Locations in this article:  San Luis Obispo, CA

Wine bottle glassA while back, while wine tasting in Napa Valley, I overheard a couple ask if they could send their favorite bottle to some friends in Kentucky. They were taken aback when the staff informed them that it would be a felony.

Unfortunately, this problem has been growing increasingly common over the last few years as states change their interstate direct shipping regulations. Jeff Kandell, the shipping coordinator for Tolosa Winery in San Luis Obispo, California explains, “In this year alone there have probably been changes in at least 10 to 12 states. We’ve had permits and we’ve lost them because of changes. It’s consistently changing.”

So whether you want to ship directly from a winery at the time of a tasting, join your favorite winery’s wine club, or you just want to order another bottle of the best wine you tasted on vacation, here is a guide to understanding the confusing and ever-changing world of wine shipping …

Wine Bottles CircledThere are three types of states when it comes to offsite orders (by phone or Internet) for direct-to-consumer wine shipments: reciprocal states, limited direct/permit states, and prohibited states.

There are also three types of onsite direct shipment states (ordering while you’re at the winery): allowed (where direct shipments are allowed whether through reciprocity or permits), federal onsite allowed, and prohibited.

Reciprocal states maintain that the only direct shipments allowed into their state are from wineries in other reciprocal states. These types of states are a dying breed, however. The number of reciprocal states went from 13 fewer than two years ago to four, as more and more states pass limited direct/permit laws. The reciprocal states that remain are New Mexico, Iowa, Illinois (which will no longer be reciprocal starting June 1, 2008), and Wisconsin.

Limited direct/permit states place restrictions on how much wine can be shipped to an individual; they may also require wineries to obtain permits for direct shipments for both onsite and offsite orders. Currently, there are 32 limited direct/permit states.

Grape Harvest BasketPermit requirements vary by state and also by the size of the winery applying. For example, Ohio, Kentucky and Massachusetts have difficult permit laws. Wineries producing more than 150,000 gallons per year are not eligible for permits to ship to Ohio; only wineries that produce less than 50,000 gallons a year are qualified for permits in Kentucky; and Massachusetts’ laws are deemed so unworkable that many wineries do not go through the trouble of acquiring them.

Also, even in limited/direct permit states there may be dry zip codes! Confused yet?

Federal onsite shipment states lie somewhere between limited direct/permit and prohibited states. Federal onsite states include Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and (unofficially) Kansas.

According to the Wine Institute (a public policy advocacy commission for California wineries) federal onsite states allow direct shipments only if the wine is purchased on the winery’s grounds. Maximum shipment sizes range from one liter to three gallons, depending on the state. Federal allowed states do not allow consumers to place their order by phone, fax or email or join wine clubs that involve direct shipments.

In essence, these states are prohibited states for offsite orders. A warning to Tennessee residents: It is a felony for offsite orders to be shipped directly to consumers, so it is best to not try to find ways around the restrictions.

Prohibited states have the easiest laws to understand: Direct shipment to consumers is not allowed regardless of where the order is made. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Utah. If you live in Maryland or Utah, be aware that it is a felony for wine to be shipped to consumers. Residents who purchase wine to be shipped directly to them can be considered “bootleggers.”

Tips on Shipping Wine … Legally

  • Prohibited states also do not allow wine to be shipped from foreign countries. As many international wineries may not want to go through the process to acquire so many permits, direct shipment of alcohol from other countries often is simply not allowed.
  • According to the Customs and Border Protection, you are allowed to bring home up to one liter of alcohol duty free if you are 21+, it is for personal use or a gift, and it does not violate the laws of the state in which you arrive. If you want to purchase more than one liter and do not want to pay taxes, ask if the winery has distributors or retailers in your state.
  • The best way to avoid problems with wine shipments is to plan ahead. “Ask the winery up front because the wineries are going to know what the rules are,” Steve Gross, Director of State Relations for the Wine Institute, said. “Work with the winery or in some cases the retailer store.”
  • If you’re planning to visit a specific winery and shipping wine as gifts (or you’d rather not fill up your suitcase), call ahead and see what their permit agreements are with your state. If the winery does not have direct shipment permits, ask if their shipping coordinator has any suggestions for distributors in your area that they sell to or can possibly ship to.
  • Sean Carroll of Free the Grapes, a coalition of consumers, wineries and retailers who work to reduce direct shipment regulations, advises, “Get to know the people that are in the winery because they will be your best friends when it comes to availability.”
  • However, if your winery vacation is spur-of-the-moment, Gross suggests visiting mid-sized to large wineries. The larger wineries will have the personnel and funds to apply for the right paperwork in the permit states. Also, Carroll advises travelers to join the mailing list of wineries they enjoyed. “Wineries are getting much savvier with marketing to consumers and most have email newsletters that they send out,” Carroll said. “They will announce new releases and when they will be traveling to certain markets.”

Remember, if a winery tells you they can’t ship to you, do not try to get around the restrictions by shipping it yourself. No matter what type of state you live in, it is illegal for an individual to mail alcohol.

The best way to make sure you have your favorite kind of wine for a long time to come is to purchase a case, pack it in shipping materials (wineries can provide these), and bring the case home with you as checked baggage or find retailers in your state who carry it.

Wineries are always more than happy to help you package their wine or find a local store that sells it. By the time you run out, the laws may have already changed so as to allow you to get more.

By Kaitlyn Voyce for

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