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N.H. lawmakers mull who should be allowed to ship wine directly to consumers

  • Some hard-to-find wines appear on the shelves at a wine shop. New Hampshire is considering a law banning shipments of wine from out of state “retailers” to customers within the state. Opponents say the law will limit wine choices in the state because more than 215,000 imported wines are available for sale in the United States, while New Hampshire offers about 10,000. Valley News file



Monitor staff
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Some wine lovers who look forward to getting new vintages in the mail would be affected if lawmakers approve a bill that would remove “retailers” from the list of those who are allowed to ship wine into the state.

Joseph Mollica, chairman of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, said the change is aimed at “brick-and-mortar” sellers in other states who compete with state liquor stores and other stores selling wine.

“A winery that sells wine isn’t a retailer. A wine club that sells wine isn’t a retailer. But a large big-box store is a retailer,” he said Monday.

The bill, Senate Bill 353, would alter the existing law by removing the word “retailer” from the list of out-of-state groups that can get licenses to directly ship wine into New Hampshire, impacting customers who order wine by mail.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee last month, Mollica said the bill would affect “about 81” of 1,174 institutions that have the licenses, or about 7 percent of the license holders. But those 7 percent of license holders account for about one-quarter of the annual $11.3 million of “direct ship” sales in the state.

“We are looking to protect our retailers and tax structure,” Mollica told the committee, which is expected to vote on the bill soon.

The question of whom would be affected by the law came up during the hearing, when John Dumais of the New Hampshire Grocers Association expressed concerns that it would inadvertently hurt some retail stores inside New Hampshire without a tweak of the wording. “Retailer” is not specifically defined in existing law or the bill.

The National Association of Wine Retailers has taken a stand against the bill, arguing that it is unnecessary because New Hampshire residents are willing to pay shipping costs for out-of-state wines only “if they can’t find what they want locally” and that the bill would limit their access to out-of-state wines and raise costs.

The group argues that the Liquor Commission is mostly concerned with limiting competition.

“Over the past three years, more than 215,000 imported wines ... have been approved for sale in the United States. Yet the New Hampshire Liquor Commission offers a mere 10,000 imported wines in the state,” the group said in a press release. “This explains why the retailer direct shipping channel is overly important to the state’s consumers.”

In response, the liquor commission argued that the imports were largely duplicating wines already sold in the state, saying that one of the licensed retailers shipped 115 different wines into the state in December and January, of which 68 were already available in stores and many of the rest were private label “knockoffs” sold by the retailer itself that echoed existing labels.

The issue of selling wine through the mail across state lines has a long, contentious history, partly because many states, including New Hampshire, get income from liquor taxes.

The issue even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, which ruled against laws in New York and Michigan that prevented shipments directly to consumers from out-of-state wineries. The 5-4 ruling held that such laws were unconstitutional because the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution indirectly says that states cannot discriminate against sellers in other states without the permission of Congress.

Mollica said different states’ laws are “all over the board” when it comes to shipping wine across borders.

New Hampshire is one of 11 states that allow shipments into or out of the state, he said. Some states allow shipments in just one direction; others allow no shipments at all.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)