The clunkiness of the Commonwealth’s laws on alcohol sales was on full display over the holiday season, as lawmakers scrambled for a way to let charities keep holding wine auctions. No one noticed until close to the holidays, the State House News Service reported, that the law allowing the auctions was set to expire Jan. 1, and lawmakers were refusing to renew it as part of a larger bill to allow out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers. While the Legislature eventually extended the current law to allow the charities to auction wine, lawmakers are still stalling on the bill allowing direct shipment of wine. It’s time for Beacon Hill to get moving — and stop putting the interests of liquor stores ahead of consumers.
A US Supreme Court decision in 2005 struck down state laws that prohibit out-of-state wineries from shipping directly to consumers; Massachusetts had such a law. But the Legislature, under pressure from alcohol wholesalers and retailers, has dragged its feet about setting up licensing rules for direct shipments. And in the absence of such rules, few wineries or shipping companies will risk sending wine into the Commonwealth.
Representative Ted Speliotis, who co-chairs the Legislature's Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, says he hopes the two sides of the issue will reach a compromise. Yet the opposing sides are so far apart that a compromise is hard to envision; while wine retailers want the ability to sell their products online, they don't want the competition that direct shipping by wineries might provide.
If the Legislature has to choose between abiding by a Supreme Court decision or protecting the short-term business interests of established package stores, following the high court ought to be the wiser path. Besides, it's not the Legislature's job to shield package stores from all possible competition; it's to set up fair rules for direct shipping — and then get out of the way. Lawmakers' failure to do so is a disservice to consumers who visit a winery on vacation and want to send its offerings back home, or who just want to buy a bottle or two from smaller wineries that just aren't distributed in Massachusetts.
The deregulation of the alcohol business is invariably thorny because incumbent interests — in this case, distributors and retailers — give out lots of campaign contributions, and they often raise the specter, even when it's not justified, that less stringent rules will lead to more underage drinking or drunken driving. It's possible that, over time, the wine industry will respond with a better PR campaign or by stepping up its lobbying on Beacon Hill. Perhaps, like proponents of right-to-repair legislation this year, they'll use the threat of a ballot initiative to get their way.
But it shouldn't come to that. In the new year, the Legislature should resolve to let direct shipments in.