The 5-Minute Briefing: The future of American wine


Why are American wine producers drunk with happiness all of a sudden?

Why are American wine producers drunk with happiness all of a sudden?

The Supreme Court just voted by a 5-4 margin to lift a long-standing ban on direct wine purchases from one state to another. In other words, if you live in New York, you can now order your favourite Napa Valley cabernet on the internet and have it sent to your house from California rather than wait for your local wine shop to stock it. Until now, direct sales were only permitted in-state - and even then not everywhere around the country. The change is good news for wine producers, especially the smaller ones who don't have the marketing clout to get their products into the supermarkets and larger retail chains. Many have had to turn down requests from would-be consumers; now they expect to double, or even triple or quadruple, their sales volume. Tim Meinken of the Sapphire Hill winery in Healdsburg, northern California, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "We think it's the greatest thing since the wine bottle was invented."

So are the Supreme Court justices more fond of their tipple than their conservative reputations would suggest? Or is this about something else entirely?

The ruling crossed ideological lines and created alliances in the court not seen in any other case. Some of the argument was about free trade. The majority saw no reason to ban interstate commerce in wine - a ban that arose in the political wheeler-dealing surrounding the end of Prohibition in the 1930s - while the minority argued that such commerce risked depriving states of crucial tax revenues. Some of the argument, though, was indeed about alcohol. The majority examined the assertion that increased trade would lead to greater abuse by minors, but found no evidence for it. The Justices' own drinking habits were not disclosed in the ruling.

Does this mean dry counties in the Deep South will be a little less dry? Do the temperance warriors have any room for a backlash?

If a state doesn't want people ordering wine off the internet it still has the option of banning all direct sales - both in-state and out-of-state. The Supreme Court ruling merely said you could not permit one and ban the other. Fifteen states already have such a ban, and others may now consider it. But New York, the biggest market outside California, is unlikely to deprive itself of direct sales because its own vintners would revolt. So the net effect will be more commerce, and quality bibulousness.

Does this have anything to do with the popularity of the film Sideways, set in the wine country of Santa Barbara County?

No, but knowing Hollywood, we can expect a DVD release marketing tie-in.

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