Winery owners toast direct wine shipments

A recent court ruling already has local wineries shipping to customers they couldn’t sell to before, but some sellers aren’t raising their glasses just yet.

The U.S. Supreme Court on May 16 invalidated state laws that prohibit wineries from shipping wine directly to out-of-state customers. The 5-4 decision in Granholm v. Heald affects New York and Michigan laws specifically but implies that other state laws hinder interstate commerce and favor in-state wineries. Some lower courts are following suit and opening up the wine market, so California wineries now can ship to 25 states rather than the previous 12.

Phil LaRocca, owner of LaRocca Vineyards & Winery, an organic winery in Forest Ranch, thinks the court decision is fair because small wineries such as his were constantly forced to turn away out-of-state customers.

“We were probably getting 10 or 30 calls a day,” LaRocca said, but the state laws meant he could send wine to less than 5 percent of those callers. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Many of the calls came from states such as New Jersey and New York, where California wineries had to go through a three-tier process involving distributors.

“The distributors back East wanted a piece of the pie,” LaRocca said.

The changing laws allow LaRocca to ship wine directly to customers in Florida and Washington, D.C. Customers can even order online. “Now we can say, ‘Great, we can ship to you,'” LaRocca said. “Before, we couldn’t do that.”

Although state laws have made Pat Arrigoni, part owner of Grey Fox Vineyards in Oroville, turn away many customers in the past, she feels hopeful that sales will increase by at least 25 percent, she said.

“I think it will really help small business,” Arrigoni said. “It’s a step forward.”

Arrigoni’s winery, which opens on weekends for wine tasting, attracts visitors from other states who want to send wine home. Wine club members and local customers also want to send wine to out-of-state friends and relatives. Now they will be able to do so.

“We’re very excited about it,” Arrigoni said. “It’s great for everybody.”

Another example: Last December, a businesswoman came into Creekside Cellars, a Chico wine shop and tasting room off of Vallombrosa Avenue, to send wine to her clients as Christmas gifts.

One of her clients lived in New York, where direct wine shipments were illegal, so the shop’s owner, Brenda McLaughlin, suggested a gift basket including olive oil and wine books­but no wine. Today, she could send the wine.

Some wineries aren’t so pleased with the changes. Although California wineries now have fewer restrictions, the owners have to do more recordkeeping and paperwork to take advantage of the situation, said Amy Hasle, owner of HoneyRun Winery & Honey Co.

“You can’t say that they made it illegal,” Hasle said, “but they’ve made it unworkable. There’s some fine print to it.”

For example, it’s legal to ship wine directly to customers in Nebraska, but it’s not profitable for Hasle’s winery because there’s a $500-per-year fee.

“I probably turn people away three or four times a week,” Hasle said. “I tell them, ‘I like my wine license, and I’m not going to do something illegal.'”

Before the change, New York wineries could ship wine to customers in New York, but California wineries weren’t allowed to send wine directly to New York customers. They had to ship their wine to distributors in other states, who sent the wine to stores.

Each state has its own requirements for shipping wine. The California requirements are: an “Approved Wine Shipper” label, an adult signature and the restriction, “Cannot deliver to intoxicated persons.”

California wineries have contracts with UPS because it’s illegal to ship wine by the U.S. Postal Service.

McLaughlin wants to let people know that California can ship to more states than before, so she plans to do some advertising and put the information on her Web site.

“People want to send good California wines,” McLaughlin said. “We just do it because we want to make sure our customers are happy.”