Union Democrat staff

A new piece of legislation working its way through Congress could restrict direct-to-consumer wine sales, which would be a blow to local wine producers.

The legislation, called H.R. 5034 or "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness," would give states the ability to regulate the distribution of alcohol in new and more restrictive ways.

Should it pass, the direct consequence of the bill would be to shift

the burden of proof from states to plaintiffs that challenge state

alcohol laws.

That means that in the past, if a winery were to challenge a state

law against selling directly to consumers, the state would have to

prove that the law did not violate the Commerce Clause of the

Constitution, which protects against preferential treatment under law.

If the bill passes, the seller would not only be forced to prove

that the state had violated the law, but the state law being challenged

would be "accorded a strong presumption of validity," according to the


That raises the bar on what sellers need to do when faced with that

kind of litigation, said Paul Kronenberg, president of the Family

Winemakers of California group.

"It turns recent jurisprudence on its head. ... It's a much higher

bar because they've changed what the burden of proof is," Kronenberg

said. "They just have to have some justification for the law, which is

not explained in the bill."

Kronenberg is referring to two court decisions over the past five

years, including a 2005 Supreme Court case that determined that if

in-state wineries could ship directly to consumers, then out-of-state

wineries could as well under the Commerce Clause.

The bill is only the first step of what wine lobbyists see as the

ultimate goal of the legislation - to put more power in the hands of

influential alcohol wholesalers that stand to gain if

direct-to-consumer sales are shut down.

It would be difficult to go to court, so then the wholesalers would

go back to the legislatures of states and demand stricter wine-shipping

laws, Kronenberg said.

"They have a long and storied history of glad handing and giving,"

he said. "They'll make changes to state alcohol law which would affect

direct shipping."

Direct shipping is important to smaller wineries because it allows

them to cater directly to their own clientele rather than sell first to

wholesalers who then sell to other retailers.

That system, called the three-tier system, was originally put in

place after the end of the Prohibition as an additional level of checks

and balances, said Richard Boone, co-president of the Calaveras Wine


This put wholesalers in position to act as the middleman and make

money off the distribution of alcohol as they provided an additional

layer of security.

Since the advent of online marketing and sales that made it easier

for winemakers to sell directly to their customers, distributors have

been trying to protect their business.

H.R. 5034 is backed by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and other wholesaler groups.

Putting sales in the hands of the wholesalers makes life difficult for smaller wineries, Boone said.

"Direct sales is almost the only option we can pursue on an individual basis," he said.

Boone is not yet concerned about the legislation, however.

"Legislation like this has been tried before, and it's just not to

that point yet," he said. "I think most people are aware, but not


Tuolumne County winemaker Jim Costello of Mt. Brow Winery predicted

that the legislation would be most painful for slightly larger wineries

that ship across the country.

"We're small and only ship to states that allow it," he said. "For the most part, it doesn't change a lot."

Wineries like Mt. Brow mostly cater to local markets, and those won't be affected.

For those that do outside business, however, the legislation could have a real impact.

"If direct shipping to consumers ends, it could be devastating for small wineries," Boone said.