Wine connoisseurs, vineyards eagerly await new direct shipping rules
Geoffrey Miller is a wine connoisseur. Unfortunately for him, he's also a resident of Massachusetts.
For decades, restrictive state laws here have made it nearly impossible to mail-order wine from other states. To get their favorite vintages, Miller and other Massachusetts grape geeks resorted to a variety of tricky workarounds, like shipping them to sympathetic friends in New Hampshire or hiring California "inter-shipping" companies to discreetly repackage the wine.
Such elaborations soon won't be necessary for Miller and other local oenophiles. Beginning Jan. 1, out-of-state wineries can more easily ship wine directly to Massachusetts consumers after the Legislature broke through years of political wrangling to relax those rules.
"I've been writing my state reps and senators for years trying to get this law changed, and they finally did it," said Miller, 62, adding that the old system was "an absurdity."
Wine producers must first obtain a license from the state, and so far Massachusetts officials said they have received applications from 91 wineries, mostly on the West Coast.
Shippers also need a license for each truck that will deliver alcohol in Massachusetts. FedEx has licenses for 1,001 vehicles and applied for another 700. The company said it will begin accepting shipments of Massachusetts-bound wine on Feb. 1. United Parcel Service already had 80 such licenses, according to state officials; the company said in a statement it is evaluating the changes in state law. The US Postal Service has so far not applied for the alcohol delivery licenses, state regulators said.
The wine industry sees the loosened rules as a significant financial opportunity. For years, vinters have had to turn away tourists from Massachusetts who wanted wine sent to their homes.
"Massachusetts was number one on the list of states we wanted to open up," said Jeff Carroll, vice president at ShipCompliant, which helps wineries and wholesalers track shipments and comply with alcohol laws. "It's an affluent state, and it's a big wine-drinking state."
Carroll's firm thinks hundreds more wineries will eventually want licenses to sell directly to Massachusetts. ShipCompliant estimates that by 2018 producers will send some $73 million in wine from outside Massachusetts to wine lovers here, with that figure jumping to nearly $105 million by 2023. If the projections are accurate, the state will net millions of dollars in excise taxes.
The roster of wine makers wanting to ship directly into Massachusetts includes former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who founded the small Doubleback Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., in 2007 after retiring from football.
Bledsoe last year lobbied the Legislature to ease direct shipments, and now he can avoid a repeat of the incident in 2013 with his famous successor at the Patriots, Tom Brady, who had sought some of Bledsoe's wines. Unable to send to Brady's home in Massachusetts, Bledsoe shipped the wines to Brady's father in California, where the elder Brady enjoyed the vintages before his son could get a taste.
"It's exciting for us," Bledsoe said of the new wine-shipping law. "We sent our license application by certified mail the first day we could. Maybe now I can actually ship some wine to Tom."
Wine clubs are also anticipating the loosened regulations. Club W, a Los Angeles startup whose members use a mobile app to pick wines and create a taste profile, is preparing digital and television advertising campaigns to raise its profile in Massachusetts.
"This is a big deal," said Club W chief executive Xander Oxman. "We're not talking about one or two percentage points of additional revenue. I think this is quite likely a double-digit add for us."
Not everyone is excited about easier access to alcohol. Officials in the dry town of Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard had previously complained to state regulators about alcohol being delivered from package stores in neighboring towns. Regulators disagreed, arguing residents who order wine online or over the phone are effectively doing business wherever their vendors are based.
Because of that prior ruling, Chilmark officials are unable to block wine shipments into their community.
"We questioned that concept and were told that if they construed it otherwise, then shut-ins would not be able to obtain alcohol," said Timothy Carroll, executive secretary for Chilmark's board of selectmen. "While that begs further questions, that is how it sits." As for Miller, the long fight over the new law left him stewing over the tangles of red tape he says are tripping up drinkers and wineries alike.
"I'm withholding judgement until I actually open my door and there's a case of wine sitting there," Miller said. "They could still find a way to screw it up."
• 7/4: Bill would let wineries ship legally to Mass.