Deadline nearing on signing New Jersey wine-shipping bill

At Valenzano Winery in Shamong, NJ, the Garden State's largest blues, jazz and wine festival. Here, a giant inflatable wine bottle on the festival grounds.
At Valenzano Winery in Shamong, NJ, the Garden State's largest blues, jazz and wine festival. Here, a giant inflatable wine bottle on the festival grounds. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 13, 2012

For New Jersey winemakers and wine sippers, Tuesday may be a day to uncork that bottle of vintage champagne.

Or not.

Noon on that day is the deadline for Gov. Christie to sign a bill that would permit direct shipping of wine to consumers. If he doesn't sign, the measure dies.

The direct-shipping bill was the last measure passed on Monday, the final day of the lame-duck legislative session.

The bill would permit wineries that produce less than 250,000 gallons a year in New Jersey or any other state to ship directly to consumers. It would make New Jersey the 39th state to permit direct shipping.

Christie had not indicated whether he would sign the bill.

New Jersey's growing winemaking industry, as well as wine enthusiasts, have been lobbying Christie to sign the bill; the state liquor industry urges the no-action "pocket" veto.

"We feel pretty good that the governor ultimately will sign it," said Scott Donnini, a Salem County lawyer-turned-vintner who chairs the legal committee of the Garden State Wine Growers Association.

Donnini, an owner of Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery, sent a letter to Christie this week, urging him to approve the bill to "allow the wineries of New Jersey to finally compete on even footing with the other great wine regions of the world and . . . to promote the preservation of agriculture, small business, and agritourism."

The president of the New Jersey Liquor Store Alliance, though, blasted the bill as a threat to liquor stores and said it "severely undermined" the state's business model for selling alcohol.

The direct-shipping bill, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), is the Legislature's response to a legal limbo created by a federal court ruling more than a year ago.

In December 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said New Jersey had unconstitutionally discriminated against out-of-state wineries by permitting only in-state wineries to sell directly to consumers.

The appeals court sent the case back to a lower court with two options: Give out-of-state wineries the same right to sell to consumers, or prohibit all wineries from selling directly to consumers.

The lawsuit was brought in 2003 by New Jersey wine enthusiasts and a California winery who argued that New Jersey should not be allowed to ban shipment of wine to Garden State consumers. They also objected to a provision in state law that permitted only in-state wineries to sell directly to consumers, through tasting rooms and kiosks in restaurants.

The legislative impasse left the matter to U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden in Newark, who gave the warring sides until March 21 to try to resolve matters.

Winemakers say the new direct-shipping bill does that.

"The legislation solves the constitutional commerce clause issue," said Audrey Cross Gambino, a constitutional lawyer and owner of Villa Milagro Vineyards in Finesville.

If Christie signs the bill, the state's winegrowers will file a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal case, arguing that the issues have been settled, Gambino said.

The bill would permit consumers to order up to 12 cases of wine a year from small wineries. For mass-produced wines, drinkers would still need to go to a liquor store.

"We're thrilled," said Tom Cosentino, a spokesman for UncorkNJ, a coalition supporting direct shipping. "It's been a three-year campaign, and thousands of wine consumers got behind this."

For New Jersey winemakers, the bill would settle disputes that had kept the fledgling industry bottled up for many months.

State licenses for wineries to sell their products expired July 1 and the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control wouldn't renew them because of the federal court ruling. Current license-holders were permitted to continue to sell wine at existing tasting rooms or other outlets, but no new outlets or wineries could be opened.

Wineries in New Jersey sell most of their wine at on-premises tasting rooms and at their stand-alone outlets or kiosks in restaurants.

Currently, 16 winery license applications and 22 outlet license applications are held up at the ABC.

A spokesman for the ABC said no decision had been made about how soon residents could begin ordering wine shipments if Christie signs the bill. The bill would take effect four months after enactment.

New Jersey is the seventh-largest wine-producing state, and winemaking is the fastest-growing segment of state agriculture, according to the winegrowers' association. The state's 40 wineries, many of them in South Jersey, have begun to win respect at national competitions, including taking six medals at this week's San Francisco Chronicle 2012 Wine Competition, the largest judging of American wines.

"I hope to make the first $100 bottle of wine in the state," said Gambino, whose winery produces about 1,500 cases a year from 10 varieties of grapes.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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