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R.I. wine lovers sue the state over distribution laws

This is the second time in two years that the state has been sued for its laws concerning the distribution of wine.

Mountain Tides wines made from petite sirah grapes in Santa Rosa, Calif.Dexter Hake/NYT

PROVIDENCE — Two Rhode Island wine lovers are challenging the state for its laws that prevent out-of-state wine retailers from shipping directly to a consumer, again.

Lonnie Berham, of Warwick, and Eric Rietveld, of Providence, filed a lawsuit this week against Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha and Elizabeth Tanner, the director of the department of business regulations. The pair said they live in “dry areas” of the state, but cannot legally have wine shipped to them directly under current state law.

On Tuesday, Berham and Rietveld filed for an injunction barring the defendants from enforcing state law that prohibits out-of-state retailers from selling and delivering wine to Rhode Island residents. They asked the court to declare the regulatory scheme “unconstitutional” and said it discriminates against out-of-state wine retailers and only protects in-state businesses.

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Local retailers in the wine business in Rhode Island can take orders by phone or online and then deliver inventory directly to the consumer, depending on the business’ license. But retailers outside of Rhode Island cannot be eligible for such a license, and cannot sell and deliver wine directly to a Rhode Island-based consumer.

This is the second time in two years that the state has been sued for distribution laws concerning distribution laws for wine.

Berham, a retired Army colonel and former Groton, Connecticut, police officer said he is a member of Laithwaite’s Wine Club but has to have his deliveries sent to his daughter’s home in Connecticut.

In the suit, he said he has to drive 65 miles away from his home to pick it up, and that there are several other wines that he’d like to have delivered that he can’t find locally, such as Terlato Pino Nero, Renieri, and Conterno.

Rietveld said in the suit that he went to college in Washington state, and belongs to a number of wine clubs there. But because of current state law, they won’t ship to his home in Rhode Island, so he has to have them delivered to his office in Boston.

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“He would prefer having wine shipped to his home in Rhode Island, especially during COVID and when he works from home. There are several foreign wines that he would like to purchase which he cannot find in Rhode Island,” said the suit.

The pair “have contacted several out-of-state wine retailers either on the Internet or by telephone, including retailers located in Connecticut and wine clubs that provide home deliveries in the region, and attempted to buy wine and have it delivered to their Rhode Island residences, but have been refused,” read the suit.

They argued that Rhode Island is a small market for wine, and that many rare, unusual and heavily allocated wines that are distributed in other states are not stocked or sold by local retailers, but are available from stores in Connecticut, New York, and California that will ship and deliver to states where it is lawful to do so.

Rietveld and Berham argued that the state is effectively requiring its residents to buy wine only from in-state retailers, “systematically protecting the economic interests of Rhode Island entities and discriminating against interstate commerce,” which they said is in violation of the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.