Wine lovers' shipping frustrations could grow

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Brian Kavalukas, of Edgewood, returned last week from a tour of California's Napa Valley wineries, one of his favorite pastimes.

As much as he enjoys talking to the vintners and sampling their wines, though, he says these trips invariably end in frustration.

"The way a Napa trip goes for a Pennsylvania resident is as follows: One, enjoy finding small and highly distinguished wineries; two, go visit and love them; three, walk right past the order desk after the tour because your state doesn't allow a purchase.

"It affects your feeling that you have freedom of choice. It just seems kind of backward to me."

The frustrations of local wine lovers may only grow in coming months following a recent Supreme Court decision and the lobbying efforts of wholesalers who are urging state officials to tighten enforcement of direct shipping laws.

The February court ruling struck down parts of a Maine law regarding tobacco shipments that required common carriers such as FedEx, UPS and DHL to verify the recipient's age when delivering packages. The court said only the federal government can regulate motor carrier services.

The ruling could have implications, at least politically, for proponents of direct shipments of wine and spirits because of concerns the alcohol could land in the hands of minors.

The ruling also has coincided with stepped-up lobbying by wholesalers to push state officials to enforce liquor laws pertaining to direct shipping.

"There is a culture of lawlessness among these purveyors. We want to make sure the regulators know what's going on under their own noses," said Craig Wolf, president and CEO of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc., who sent letters to officials in all 50 states, warning of the "rampant" practice of illegally shipping alcohol to consumers across state lines.

These developments come as some local wine enthusiasts report they're having more problems getting wine.

For six years, Sewickley businessman Mike Havelka has rented space at a temperature-controlled wine storage facility in California. Its services include working with the wineries and arranging with carriers such as FedEx and DHL to ship bottles to Sewickley.

Last December, a shipment headed for Mr. Havelka's home was returned to California because it did not "conform" to the carrier's shipping requirements, Mr. Havelka said. About the same time, his backup carrier informed him there would be no further wine deliveries. The driver helpfully suggested he label the shipments "olive oil" instead.

"Once Granholm [the Supreme Court decision mandating that in-state and out-of-state wineries be treated the same] came out, we were supposed to get shipping, but it hasn't happened," said Mr. Havelka.

Mr. Havelka organized a protest wine tasting in Bellevue earlier this month, and his online "Free and Fair Wine Shipping in PA" petition (www.ipetitions.com/petition/PAWineFreedom/signatures-1.html) has more than 575 signatures and anonymous comments from frustrated wine buyers. His group, The PA Wine Freedom Group, has proposed allowing direct shipments and putting the onus on the shipper to verify the recipient's age. Wineries will not risk their shipping licenses by selling to teens, he believes.

Meanwhile, he is still fuming about 120 bottles of wine he owns -- representing a $10,000 investment -- that are stranded in California storage. He could ship the wine to family members in West Virginia and pick it up there, he said. Bringing the wine into Pennsylvania in that manner is still illegal, though, even if the violation is lightly policed and rarely enforced.

"Being forced to be a criminal bothers me," he said.

Mr. Wolf said wholesalers want to "strike a balance" between giving consumers what they want and preserving regulatory concerns. "For the wine lover who can't get a particular wine, we understand that can be an issue. But is that worth breaking down a system that has worked amazingly well?"

It is not, he insisted, a matter of protecting wholesalers' profits, as direct shipping sales would represent only a small percentage of their business. One former distributor doubts that's the case.

"The wholesalers are obviously against direct shipping because they lose their markup," said Shelly Margolis of Philadelphia, who founded Margolis Wine and Spirits and later sold the business to Southern Wine and Spirits. "Any industry would love to have a monopoly, and that's what it really is."

Wholesalers play an important role in getting wine and spirits to customers, Mr. Margolis said. But wholesalers are often less interested in small wineries, he said, where their profits will be smaller.

Mr. Margolis suggests allowing limited shipments, perhaps six cases a year, so wine enthusiasts can sample from boutique wineries. Even with a small tax added, "this would alleviate this situation of a person not being able to go to Napa, or Oregon, and satisfy your likes and dislikes."


Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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