Buying Web wine not likely in Utah

U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a landmark case

Published: Saturday, Dec. 11 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Utah wine connoisseurs probably won't be raising their glasses anytime soon to Internet shipments of their favorite vintage, even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against states in a landmark case now before the court.

"It's not really directly to the point," said Utah assistant attorney general Thom Roberts. "The Utah law is different and is not the issue being argued."

The Supreme Court this week considered whether state alcoholic beverage regulations put in place 70 years ago should remain the law of the land in the Internet age.

The issue is conflicting lower-court rulings, one involving Michigan and the other New York, about whether states can ban the direct shipment of wine to consumers from out-of-state wineries but allow it for in-state wineries.

Wineries argued that the practice is discriminatory and is a violation of the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits states from inhibiting interstate commerce.

Direct shipment to consumers in Utah is illegal, regardless of whether the wine comes from a Utah winery or one out of state, Roberts said.

Utah joined in a petition filed by about two dozen states urging the justices to give each the authority to regulate alcohol within its own borders.

The case affects primarily small wineries, called boutique wineries, which produce small quantities of high-quality wines that are marketed largely to customers on the Internet and to those who visit the wineries and want the product shipped home. That allows them to compete with the large companies that already have a presence in every state.

Utah, which boasts some of the best wine stores in the country, still doesn't carry vintages from most of the 50 states that have wineries.

The justices seemed troubled that states could treat out-of-state wineries in a different way from those within their own borders. They were equally uncertain, however, about overturning long-established regulations aimed partly at protecting minors.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the court might remedy the problem of unfair treatment by striking down laws that allow direct shipments only for in-state wineries. "The out-of-state vendors would be no better off, but it would be equal," she said.

And that's exactly how Utah treats wineries, Roberts said.

At issue is the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition in 1933 and explicitly granted states authority to regulate alcohol sales. Twenty-four states, including Utah, subsequently passed laws requiring outside wineries to sell their products through licensed wholesalers in the state.

Charlene Radley, manager of Castle Creek Winery near Moab, would like to see the law changed to allow direct shipment, although she doesn't expect that to happen soon.

Under current law, Castle Creek wine tourists from states that do not allow direct shipments must purchase the wine on site, and they are limited to what they can fit in their car or carry onto a plane.

"If we had a chance to ship, we'd get a lot of requests, but it's not something we're allowed to do," she said. "We'd sell a lot more, because people can only carry so much on vacation."

Roberts said Utahns who just can't find their favorite vintage can take advantage of a little-known provision in state alcohol regulation: Get the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to order it for them. The product is then shipped to state regulators, and the state liquor tax is added to the total.

"But they have to order it by the case," he said.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com

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