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A Thanksgiving lament: Free The Grapes | Editorial

Consider this somber Thanksgiving Day scenario. You’re sipping a special Cabernet from Caso Robles or a rare Temecula Valley varietal, marveling how they can fill a bottle with radiant liquid poetry, and your host gives you some sobering news:

The bottle is empty, and if you want this particular wine again, you’ll need a plane to visit the place it came from.

Why? Because the local retailer doesn’t carry it, and an archaic state law forbids wineries that produce more than 250,000 gallons per year — that’s about 106,000 cases, a medium-sized winery — from shipping their sunshine to New Jersey.

Sorry, Bordeaux breath.

But here’s the good news: This can be fixed in time for Christmas.

There is a consumer-friendly, bipartisan measure in the Legislature that brings New Jersey in balance with the rest of the country, and it can easily be moved during lame duck. The bill eliminates the “capacity cap,” and changes the state law so that any winery in the U.S. willing to pay an annual fee can ship directly to New Jersey consumers.

Want to know how many other states inhibits free choice like this? Just one — Ohio.

The elimination of the cap would generate $4 million annually for our state, but it’s not about that.

“It’s about consumer choice, and not having an arbitrary prohibition on products that people want to buy,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the bill’s sponsor. “I’ve been to wineries in California, and you always find something they make in smaller quantities for customers in their tasting rooms. And the next thing you hear is, ‘Sorry, we don’t ship to New Jersey.’ That’s ridiculous.

Indeed, connoisseurs are often frustrated by their inability to purchase large quantities of certain wines unless their retailer stocks it for them. If you want to stock up on a unique variety from a medium-sized producer in Sonoma or the Willamette Valley or the Finger Lakes, you’re out of luck unless you have it shipped to a friend in New York or Pennsylvania.

Obviously, this bill is a non-starter if it damages New Jersey’s 61 wineries, which one assumes would want to quell out-of-state competition.

But sponsors cannot find a vintner in our state who objects to erasing the capacity cap.

Tom Cosentino, the executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, says his organization is “neutral” on this bill, because out-of-state imports have no discernible impact on New Jersey wineries. The bulk of in-state winery sales, he explains, is from customers who visit their tasting rooms.

The GSWGA board chairman, Louis Caracciolo of Amalthea Cellars, says the wine shipping bill hasn’t come up as an issue in years, because “it’s just not relevant to us, even though we all knew it would need a legislative solution someday, because the cap is something from a bygone era.”

Caracciolo adds that 80 percent of his business is direct-to-consumer, with only 10 percent sold to wholesalers, “and that’s typical of the majority of wineries in New Jersey.”

The wholesalers and retailers are opposing this bill, and O’Scanlon wants to be fair to them. But that doesn’t change the fact that consumers should decide what they can purchase, and besides, “I don’t believe big wholesalers have made a great case that it could hurt them,” O’Scanlon added. “We’re not seeing it in other states at all.”

The case study cited most often is from Maryland. Its state comptroller reported that direct-to-consumer shipping had “minimal to no impact on Maryland wholesalers.” It also found “measurable positive impact on product availability and consumer choice.”

Or consider this simple math: Of the top 45 domestic wines ranked in Wine Spectator’s Top 100, only 29 had been available to Marylanders via wholesale channels. Since the direct shipping law was changed, its consumers can access 42 of the 45.

New Jersey consumers — who are fifth in the U.S. in per-capital wine consumption — are denied more than 90 percent of domestic brands through direct shipping. We deserve the same freedom of choice of the other states. Let’s toast to it.

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