Rules everywhere or I just want to drink good wine in Utah

Depending upon which US State you live in, where you can buy wine is different.

In California, you can find great wine in grocery stores, wine shops, and even convenience stores. In other states, you must go to a state run liquor stores where a sad selection of wine is the only thing available. The days and hours in which you can buy wine also varies by state. In Nevada, if the store is open, you can buy wine. In Georgia, you cannot buy wine before 11am or after 10pm Monday through Saturday, and never on a Sunday. In Washington, a winery can ship


online ordered wine to house, but for customers in Massachusetts that is a big no-no. You can buy beer in Utah, but it must not exceed 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent by volume), much less than other states.⁠1 In the dry counties of Arkansas, you can never legally drink, and in parishes in Louisiana, you can go through a drive-thru and openly walk down a street with your alcoholic Hurricane.

Regarding wine and alcohol, each state acts as its own country. 

The state set the rules and has total control over how alcohol is sold and consumed within that territory, either with rules governing the whole state or with rules giving the control to the counties. This convoluted set of varying rules in the US is all due to Prohibition and the after effects of its repeal. Prohibition has been called the “Great Mistake” but for many, the three tier system that became the accepted form of alcohol distribution with Prohibition’s repeal did the most damage in how it has limited how customers can consume wine.


To understand why the three tier system exists, we must quickly understand the social movement that led to Prohibition. There have been wonderful books that go into the glorious details of Prohibition, but the gist is many of the social ills of society could easily be traced back to the copious consumption of alcohol.  “Everyone” knew of a hard laboring man who would who work all day, drink all night, then come home drunk, poor, and angry, and beat his wife and children. Drinking led to gambling, gambling debts, and families out on the street. Drinking would lead to men abusing and raping their wives, and produce more children for them to feed and even less money at the end of the day. 


Women, specifically wealthy, white Anglo-Saxon woman, lead the charge for the temperance movement. It was not their husbands and fathers they feared coming home drunk, but the husbands of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants and the large family they produced that society would be responsible for. Prohibition was trigging mainly by fear of others.

With Prohibition in place in 1920, people did not stop drinking, the activity simply went underground and became even more directly dangerous. Organized crime exploded and everyday good citizens began breaking the prohibition laws. With unregulated alcohol standards, and consumption demands holding steady, organized crime found ways of utilizing industrial alcohol and making it “safe” or finding ways of producing their own alcohol. The government did everything they could to prevent this reverse engineering, and even went so far as to poison fake alcohol, leading to the death of many Americans.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 due to it being a “complete and utter failure”, the fears that triggered its passing were not abated. There was still a lack of trust that adults, those that were different from oneself, could not handle themselves with the beverage. There was also a new force on the rule making policy. That of special interests and people who had gained power running alcohol during its underground days. Because no one set of rules could be determined at the federal level, and state lobbying was strong, the states gained the majority of power to determine how alcohol would be controlled, so long as it flowed through an established three tier system.

The Three Tier System

The three tier system is designed to separate each group in the production and sell of alcohol. The three tiers are: 

  1. Wine, Beer, and Alcohol Producers/Importers
  2. Distributors
  3. Retailers

Here, producers can only sell to distributors, distributors can only sell to retailers, and retailers are the only ones who can sell to consumers. This allowed for government oversight and taxation at each step. 

This system created many strangle point that killed weaker or new entrants into a market. In Illinois, Young’s Market is the largest distributor in the state and for many years was the only distributor in Chicago. This monopoly benefited the owners of Young’s Market, but not the producers or consumers. 

For a specific wine to get from a winemakers hands to a consumer’s glass it had to jump through many steps. It gets made and then must pass federal approval and taxation receiving a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). Then the winery contracts with a distributor to carry that wine (or a slate of wines) in a specific state. That distributor is often (either by contract or law) the only distributor to carry that wine in that state or area. The sales representative of the distributor, then adds that wines information into their product book and shops it (and hundreds or thousands of other alcohol products) to restaurants and retailers. The retailer then must select the wine, and sells it to the consumer. In the traditional system, at no point in time can the producer advocate for their product directly to either the retailer or the consumer, and if the producer was to advertise that their wine was sold at a specific retailer with intent to drive sales there, they would be in violation of tied house laws.

Now you are probably saying, “That’s not true for where I live! I’ve tasted wine and bought wine directly from a winery. I’ve had a beer that was produced at the same brew pub that made that delicious burger. And I’ve had wine shipped to me from a winery in a different state through a wine club.” And you would be right. Because, Thank God, things have slowly changed since 1933. 


There has been a gradual breakdown of this strict system in many parts of the country by organizations like “Free the Grapes⁠2”, private lobbying, and the desire of lawmakers to have interstate cooperation to increase interstate trade. Until 2014, Florida only allowed beer to be sold to restaurants in a keg and not wine, but lobbying by Free Flow Wine got this rule changed and wine on tap is now legal in the state.⁠3

The Three Tier system is mainly intact, but with exceptions to different parts of the laws depending where you are. California, Washington, Oregon, and New York, are the states which are largest growers of grapes and producers of wine. These states have reached a gentleman’s agreement to allow for the “free” trade of wine amongst their states. California allows the shipping of wine from any state (so long as they have the proper permits), Massachusetts does not allow wine shipping, but they do allow for brew pubs. California allows for all types of producers (wine, beer, spirits) to taste their product at their production facility but they must pay a fee for the beer or spirits, and there is a limit to how much consumers can try.

All of these different rules have created a complex web of paperwork, reporting, and compliance that producers, importers, and distributors, have to weave through as they strive to sell to customers across the country. Luckily, software is being utilized to help with this problem, but the cost and penalties for accidental mistakes have not decreased. 

With this system in place it is even more understandable why we refer to this business as “the industry”. The job is not for the faint of heart to maneuver through these regulations. And it is not for the shy consumer to exist, if she wants to see it changed. Donate to people like Free the Grapes, elect representatives who agree with you on the removal of these old structures, and drink small producers when you can. All of these actions can help continue to change the rules that were established so long ago.


1 Parsons, TJ. “State Liquor Laws – Terminology, Availability, and Tips”. visitsaltlake.com. Retrieved March 10, 2018.

2 https://freethegrapes.org

3 https://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/07/prweb12011077.htm


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