Blog: Chris Brook-CarterAn Internet ban - who is it protecting?

Chris Brook-Carter | 1 July 2005

The debate raging in the US over the sale of wine on the Internet is a fascinating one, merely because no-one can say with any certainty who is actually in the right.

Following a US Supreme Court judgement that said states could not discriminate between in-state and out-of-state wineries when ruling on direct to consumer shipping of wine, individual state legislatures have had a choice. They can either allow all US wineries to ship direct to consumers within their borders, or none at all.

Those advocating a total ban on Internet wine sales, argue that the dangers of allowing Internet sales far outweigh the negative implications of a ban on the finances of local winemakers who, to a degree, rely on direct-to-consumer shipments within their own states.

The primary fears seem to centre around a loss of revenue to state coffers and those employed by the three-tier system in the locality, as well as the fear that underage drinkers will abuse the system by ordering wine illegally.

Although I am slightly uneasy about commenting on a situation so complicated from thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, I am loath to sit on the fence. So my gut reaction is this.

Will the wine and spirit retailers within the state really be hit by Internet wine shipments were they to be allowed? Buying wine over the Internet is a well-established practise here in the UK but still only makes up a minute proportion of overall wine sales.

Secondly - and this is probably the more important point, given the current climate - would underage drinkers, intent on going out and getting drunk really want to sit on the Internet and order a case of wine? I just can't see it. Teenagers who want to get hold of alcohol, drink cheap RTDs and beer, don't they? Not Napa Pinot Noir.

Some have argued that winemakers will use this medium to pedal cheap and sweet wine or wine-type RTD brands to grateful teenage gullets. Again, this argument seems flawed to me. The small wineries that rely on direct shipping to survive do not have the economic capacity to produce cheap-end, popular wine such as Two Buck Chuck. Bronco Wines was only able to produce such a brand because of the sheer size of its vineyard holdings. These smaller wineries are not even close to being in the same league.

Furthermore, surely a set of regulations and penalties could be put in place to make sure that, even if a teenager did order wine over the net, it would never actually reach them? Again, I can only draw on my experience in the UK, but I have not once heard of an underage drinker successfully ordering a case of wine in this country n-line - and I am sure there would be outrage should it happen, and quite rightly so.

No. This appears to be less of a social or moral issue at stake than an economic one. And the whole thing smacks of old-fashioned protectionism in favour of the state wholesalers at the expense of the small winemaker.


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