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Tell Statehouse to let your favorite wine be shipped to you

Jeremy Benson Guest columnist

This happens a lot among people who enjoy a nice bottle of wine: You visit a winery in Oregon or New York or California, sample the fruits of their labors and like it so much that when you get home you want to buy afew bottles. Your local stores don’t carry it, but you figure that’s no problem; you’ll just order from the winery.

Well, if you live in New Jersey, odds are you will be disappointed.

The state’s discriminatory law on wine-shipping makes more than 90 percent of wine made in the U.S. off limits because it’s illegal for the winery to ship directly to consumers’ home or office.

Whether a vintner can or can’t ship to New Jersey households depends solely on how much wine the vintner produces.

The bottom line: If a winery or wine company crafts fewer than 106,000 cases a year, it can ship to New Jersey homes and offices. If it makes more wine than that, it can’t. Among states that allow direct-shipping from wineries, only New Jersey and Ohio impose this capacity limit.

It’s time New Jersey wine enthusiasts enjoyed the same freedom of choice as others around the country.

And they aren’t the only ones who would gain. New Jersey stands to gain millions of dollars a year from the excise taxes wineries would collect and remit, and the license fees they would pay for the right to ship directly to consumers here.

To confirm that, just look at Pennsylvania. The Keystone State began allowing winery direct shipping to consumers in August 2016. To date, more than 900 wineries have applied for shipping licenses, and the state took in nearly $4 million in license fees and sales and excise taxes just during the first four months.

Other states’ experiences show that removing barriers to shipping doesn’t hurt local retailers because it doesn’t alter established wine-buying patterns. In fact, restriction- free shipping can boost local sales when consumers enjoy wines not yet available in stores and then ask their retailers to stock them.

The U.S. is home to over 9,000 wineries that account for more than 100,000 labels. No local store can carry more than a fraction of them.

As for New Jersey wineries, they all produce below the capacity cap, so they can ship to New Jersey consumers — for now. But the moment a winery in the state goes over 106,000 cases in ayear, its right to ship to consumers, even within the state, will end.

The need to change New Jersey law stems from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned states from discriminating against wineries based on location. The court ruled astate could either allow shipments from in-state and out-of-state wineries, or from none at all. Initially, New Jersey’s response was to ban all direct shipping to consumers, from any wineries, in-state or out. Then, in 2012, New Jersey partially restored direct shipping to consumers, with the arbitrary capacity cap determining who could ship what.

The downside of New Jersey’s half-measure approach is easily seen: In four years, wineries have taken out fewer than 400 shipping licenses, or fewer than half of what Pennsylvania sold in its first full year of legalizing direct shipping, with no New Jersey-style restrictions. The difference isn’t surprising when you consider that New Jersey’s capacity cap keeps the state’s consumers from most of the wine made in the U.S. It can get confusing, too. In some cases, small wineries shipped to New Jersey consumers and then were banned from doing so after being bought by another winery whose aggregate production exceeded the capacity cap.

Common sense says every winery — and every consumer — should be treated the same. Trenton shouldn’t be deciding which wines you can have shipped to your door.

You can help promote free choice and free trade by visiting freethegrapes.org and writing your state legislators to support a sensible solution. Jeremy Benson is executive director of Free the Grapes!, a national grass-roots coalition of wine lovers, wineries and retailers. He canbe reached at fedup@freethegrapes.org or 707-254-9292.

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