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Shipping wine: More than getting a box

FINGER LAKES—When you travel to a winery and find a wine you like, the best and simplest way to get it from purchase point to your table is to take it with you. But when customers have no room in their luggage, or they’re going to Canada before returning home, or they’ve flown into the area with round-trip tickets, or they’re from out of state and after returning home, belatedly realize they should have gotten more of a favorite vintage—shipping is often, though not always, possible.
In 2005, when a revised law allowing shipping from New York to other states was passed, many area wineries initially considered this a wonderful improvement on previous restrictions. But from the point of view of the recipient location, there are two basic problems with shipping wines in—collection of state and local taxes and ensuring that the ultimate consumer of that case of premium New York Cabernet Sauvignon is over 21.
While the state governments of several locales don’t give a great deal of thought and worry to wine shipments, others have enacted a complex permitting or licensing process. In the first instance, it’s easy for wineries to share the enjoyment of uncorking New York. Where shipping requires a lot of paperwork, what once seemed to be a golden opportunity may, on second thought, not be worth the effort. Additionally, many states seem to be regularly re-thinking their stance on allowing their residents to receive wine shipments from out of state.
“The laws are constantly changing,” says Fred Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport. “It’s a challenge to keep up with each state’s rules. A lot of states have enacted licensing fees effectively blocking shipments. Some are prohibitively high, and they’re like barriers. Is it worth several hundred dollars to ship into those states?” he asks. “Some states don’t allow direct shipping, period. Some have a barrier in high licensing fees; other states either have a moderate fee or no fee. Those are the easiest to deal with. It really is a challenge keeping up.”
Larger wineries with a strong following and popularly recognized names, like Dr. Frank’s and Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in Hector, have found a better solution in working through distributors instead.
“Shipping has gone down for us because we’re in liquor stores and wine stores,” says Dane Edgerton of Hazlitt’s. “We’re pretty well represented all along the east coast and moving west now. We’re doing less shipping now than we used to. Sales have transferred to local liquor and wine stores. People are going down to local wine stores for our wine instead of having it shipped. And you have to remember, a case of wine weighs a lot—38 pounds—and you’re dealing with shipping zones so the price goes up the further you ship it.”
But for smaller wineries intending to grow, and those not yet widely distributed, finding a distributor is not always easy. Commenting on an inherent conundrum John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan says, “You need a huge market, brand recognition. And the only way you can build brand recognition is if people start drinking your wine and telling other people about it. It’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg? If they see you’re selling 1,000 cases in Texas, then they’re interested.” Anthony Road used to send wine to Texas—but then that state changed its laws about shipping. Likewise, the $3,000 licensing fee prices shipments to Connecticut out of the market. “A number of states are going though changes. It just drives you up a tree!”
There are few funny stories about wine shipping. Frank recalls having to explain to a group of eager customers that no, the winery could not ship to Japan. And at another winery, when an employee helpfully called an Ithaca packaging/UPS store on behalf of different customers, she was told the company offered reinforced cartons suitable for shipping wine but, “Of course, we’re not allowed to ship alcohol. But on the other hand, we’re not going to stand next to them and watch what they put into the box. If they want to—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—pack a case of artisanal olive oil from the Finger Lakes, we’ll help them get it where it’s going safely.”
More openly, some states that don’t allow a winery to ship wine in to customers will allow those customers to visit a winery, purchase wine while there and ship that wine to themselves.
“We primarily do business through wholesalers,” says Francis Curran of Bully Hill Vineyards in Hammondsport. “We only direct-ship to states where we don’t have wholesalers, and that’s where we have a huge compliance hurdle and it costs a lot of money,” he says.
Meanwhile, he adds, with wholesalers feeling a squeeze from direct shipping, they’ve lobbied in favor of a bill currently before Congress. If passed, HR 5034 would affirm states’ rights to regulate commerce in alcohol, putting further obstacles in the way of shipping wine directly to customers.
This would mean an even greater gap between New York’s favorable climate areas for growing grapes and a favorable national business climate for the product.
“There’s still a long ways to go,” Curran says of the laws already on the books of several state governments limiting shipments. “I guess you could call it opportunity for improvement.”

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