When I bought wine in California, wineries were happy to help me ship it home. Now I'm both a smuggler and a sucker.
The wineries I visited said it was legal to ship home wine as long as I bought it at the winery. That's wrong. They also said it would cost about $40 a case to ship home. That's wrong, too.
I can't blame the wineries for being ... let's say confused. There is a state-by-state crazy quilt of regulations concerning where wine can be shipped. In fact, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case this session that may ease regulation. In the meantime, you can get some wine home legally, though you may have to jump through hoops to do it.
A federal law passed in November 2002 to increase airline security says wine you would carry home on a flight can be shipped instead. But that's if your state lets you carry wine home at all. Each state sets its own limit. In some cases, the amount you can carry is different than the amount you can ship. But if there is a state law, that's the one you have to obey -- it supersedes the federal law.
* In Maryland, where I was shipping, a recent law says that if a winery pays a small fee, it can ship up to 12 cases to a customer a year -- with a very big provision: The shipment first must go through a wine distributor and a retail store, which both would presumably charge a fee, if you could get one to do it. "To this day, the distributors have said, hey, forget it," says Steve Gross, director of state relations for the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy association in San Francisco that is working to loosen regulations. It's a felony for wineries to ship to Maryland if they don't comply with these rules.
* n Virginia, direct shipping is okay if, among other things, the winery owners pay small fees, submit to a criminal history check, use Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control-approved shippers and pay taxes on the goods. At current count, 250 wineries around the country are licensed to ship directly to Virginia consumers.
* The District of Columbia allows direct shipping of about one bottle per customer a month. This means you can join a "Wine of the Month" club.
* West Virginia is a reciprocal state, which means you can ship wine direct to West Virginia from any state that says West Virginia can ship wine direct to it. There are 12 reciprocal states, including Washington, Oregon and California.
But I didn't know this while in California, so I listened to the wineries, which insisted I could ship to Maryland if I bought it on site. The wineries required that I carry the wine to the shipper myself, or, in some instances, they had wine warehoused at the shippers already, as though I had carried it there. This gets the winery off the hook. It can say, "Hey, he shipped wine to a felony state, not us." Fortunately it's a felony only for the winery; for me it is a misdemeanor, although I risked having the wine confiscated.
That's how I became a smuggler. Here's how I became a sucker. The wineries had told me to expect a shipping fee of about $40 a case. When I went to the shipper, though, the actual price to ship 2 1/2 cases of wine came to a whopping $245 -- an average of more than $13 a bottle. But I was stuck. How else was I going to get this stuff home? For the first time during my trip to wine country, it was unpleasant to be over a barrel.
-- Roy Furchgott
For detailed information on how consumers can legally ship wine home, see www.freethegrapes.org or www.wineinstitute.org/shipwine.