Massachusetts Approves DtC Law
New legislation opens Boston state to wine shipping
Boston, Mass.—With persistent political and legal pressure and a little celebrity stardust from a former NFL quarterback, efforts to open Massachusetts to wine shipping have finally paid off.
Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law July 11 a state budget that includes a provision allowing direct shipments of wine to residents. The new law opens one of the United States’ largest wine markets to direct-to-consumer shipments.
Steve Gross, vice president of state relations at the San Francisco, Calif.-based Wine Institute, said Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have been the two largest states to prohibit direct shipments. “We’re delighted to check one of those off the list,” Gross said.
He said the new law means that more than 92% of the U.S. population can now purchase wine and have it shipped directly to their homes. “It’s very satisfying because this state has been in limbo for a long time,” Gross said.
Only bonded wineries will be able to apply for a direct-shipping permit, which costs $300 and $150 to renew. Consumers are limited to a dozen 9-liter cases per year. The Massachusetts Alcohol Beverage Control Commission will be developing the permit application process in the next six months.
A quarterback lobbyist
Gross and the Wine Institute’s president and chief executive officer Bobby Koch both credited the lobbying efforts of former quarterback Drew Bledsoe as key to getting wine shipping through the state legislature in 2013. Bledsoe played with the New England Patriots from 1993 to 2001 and then with the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys before retiring in 2007.
Speaking with Wines & Vines today, Bledsoe said he was more than happy to help a cause that he said would be beneficial to the wine industry, consumers and the state of Massachusetts. “I’m really, really excited about this because it’s one of those rare occasions where everyone wins.”
He said he spent a few days meeting with lawmakers and doing press interviews to build momentum for a direct-shipping law to pass. “I actually was a registered lobbyist—my only true foray into politics, and probably my last.”
Consumers will have access to a greater variety of wines, the state will collect tax revenue off shipments, and even in-state retailers will benefit, he said. When consumers have greater access to wine, Bledsoe said it increases the general enthusiasm for wine and increases wine sales across the board. He noted that after Maryland passed its direct shipping law wine sales there grew by nearly 4%.
Born in Ellensburg, Wash., Bledsoe played football at high school in Walla Walla and at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash. After leaving the NFL, he founded Doubleback winery in Walla Walla in 2007.
Bledsoe said about one-third of the people on the Doubleback mailing lists are Massachusetts residents, and starting in 2015 they’ll now be able to buy wine direct from the winery and have their purchases shipped to them at home.
He said the winery reached his goal of making 3,000 cases per year with the 2013 vintage. Doubleback produces a signature, estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Bledsoe’s 50 acres of vines in the Walla Walla Valley. He said he’s set to launch a second label, Bledsoe Family Wines, which he described as more of an everyday wine made with estate grapes that didn’t make it into the Doubleback label. Chris Figgins is the consulting winemaker at Doubleback.
Long road to shipping law
In 2006, lawmakers in the state overrode a veto by then-Gov. Mitt Romney to pass a bill that essentially prohibited DtC shipments to state residents. While it allowed Massachusetts wineries to sell direct to customers, it placed onerous burdens on out-of-state wineries making it essentially impossible to sell their wines directly to Massachusetts residents.
Gross said wholesalers and retail wine and liquor stores—or “package stores” as they’re known in the state—made a concerted effort to block any legislation that would open Massachusetts to more direct shipping.
The Family Winemakers of California filed a lawsuit the same year arguing the law violated the “Commerce Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. In 2008, a Massachusetts judge ruled in favor of the winemakers suit and that decision was later upheld by a 2010 ruling of the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Following the court decision, a DtC bill died in the state’s legislature in 2012, but Rep. Theodore C. Speliotis picked up the issue the next year. In March 2013, Bledsoe’s lobbying helped get a law through the state House and Senate and into the budget bill.
Gross also credited Jeremy Benson and his team with Free the Grapes! for getting the issue publicity and helping to convince state lawmakers to move a bill forward. He also said Massachusetts residents eventually grew fed up with not having the DtC option. “Ultimately it was Massachusetts consumers that have been looking for this for a long time, and they spoke their mind to their legislators,” he said.
Dave Roberts, owner and general manager of Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod in Truro, Mass., said he was happy the law passed and has no concerns about losing market share to out-of-state wineries. “We’re a big believer in the free market,” he said. “We’re pleased that they were able to find a solution.”
The next frontier
Now that Massachusetts has been opened up to wine shipping, the next big target is Pennsylvania. Gross said the state government had been tangled in a complicated d ebate on privatizing the state’s chain of liquor and wine stores, but now that that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon, the focus is back to getting a direct-shipping bill passed.
He said the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has expressed its support for such a law, and there are several pieces of legislation in the works. With lawmakers in session for the rest of the year, Gross is hopeful something may get done. “We’re back to the point now of looking at a whole series of DtC bills,” he said.