Buying out-of-state wine? Good luck

After three years, Pa. has not addressed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling directing it to make the deliveries legal.

Posted: May 27, 2008

HARRISBURG - You want a bottle of that flavorful California pinot noir, but the state liquor store doesn't carry it.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you are probably out of luck.

Wine is the one alcoholic beverage in Pennsylvania you could get shipped to your front doorstep, except for foot-dragging by the state legislature.

Although it's been three years since Pennsylvania was told by the U.S. Supreme Court to make it legal for oenophiles to receive direct shipments from out-of-state wineries, lawmakers have left the issue to wither on the vine.

The lack of action has left few alternatives for consumers looking for vintages not carried in Pennsylvania's state-run wine and spirits shops. Most out-of-state wineries refuse to ship directly to Pennsylvania homes until it settles on a new, and permanent, law.

And the few that do must do so quietly: in brown boxes that arrive at people's homes without labels marking them as wine.

"I have never heard a truly coherent, well-formed, intelligent argument for why I can't get wine shipped to me," said Marc Raspanti, a Philadelphia lawyer and self-described wine-lover frustrated by the state's inaction.

Rep. Paul Costa (D., Allegheny) has been trying for several years to resolve the issue. He attributes the delay to the "sheer number of concerns" raised by different interest groups.

"It's difficult to have any change in alcohol laws in our state," said Costa, "because, at the end of the day, there are going to be people who don't get their way.

"In the meantime, though, I feel like we're ignoring a court directive," Costa said. "I'm not sure how we justify that."

That order grew out of a series of court rulings following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 specific to interstate wine sales. The justices ruled that all states must treat out-of-state wineries the same way they treat in-state wineries.

Pennsylvania prohibited out-of-state wineries from shipping directly to state residents - but it did allow small in-state wineries to do so.

But the Supreme Court ruling meant Pennsylvania's shipping laws were unconstitutional and had to be changed.

Nick Hays, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, said that since the court decision, the agency has been allowing smaller out-of-state wineries to apply for the same "limited winery" license as in-state wineries. Only wineries producing less than 200,000 gallons a year qualify.

"It's a short-term solution until the legislature fixes the bigger problem," said Hays.

To date, only one out-of-state winery has applied for, and received, such a license. Many wineries are reluctant to apply because they won't qualify - they are too large - or because they want to wait for permanent rules.

The legislature could increase the 200,000-gallon limit to allow more wineries to qualify.

"That's not convenience," said Jonathan Newman, the former chairman of the Liquor Control Board who resigned in early 2007 and has launched a private company supplying out-of-state wine retailers with discounted wines.

"Ultimately, it's the Pennsylvania consumer getting the short end of the stick," he said, adding that wine lovers, particularly in the Philadelphia area, often travel across the Pennsylvania border to find wines they want.

Marnie Old, a Philadelphia sommelier and wine educator, believes Pennsylvania will stick with the status quo rather than make radical changes to the law.

The consumer's problem isn't the selection of wines in state stores, she said, but finding the wines inside the shops, which critics say are difficult to navigate.

"Sure, in a perfect world, government shouldn't be standing between me and my wine purchase," Old said.

"But it's not a perfect world," she added, "and this is not an everyday concern of the vast majority of Pennsylvanians."

Taxes are a major factor bogging action on a wine-shipping bill.

Pennsylvania banned out-of-state wine shipments largely because of its long tradition of regulating alcohol sales. There were concerns about collecting taxes on out-of-state shipments and worries that alcohol could end up in the hands of minors.

Currently, a person buying a bottle of wine at one of the state's wine and spirits shops pays a number of taxes and fees, including an 18 percent tax known as the "Johnstown flood tax," or "emergency tax." That levy is on top of Pennsylvania's six percent sales tax - and the 30 percent Liquor Control Board markup - that consumers pay.

Costa said the state wants to ensure it continues to capture some of those taxes, while at the same time, safeguarding against deliveries to the under-21 crowd.

So his bill would essentially make permanent what the Liquor Control Board is doing now: allow out-of-state wineries to ship to state stores, but not directly to the consumer.

"It's a starting point," he said. "I'm not naive enough to think my bill is going to reach the governor's desk, but I want to put something out there to get a conversation started."


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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