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OHIO New law allows wine to pour in



Published: Thu, July 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



In-state winemakers welcome the new competition.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- About 2,500 small wineries around the country now can ship directly to Ohio customers, estimates an attorney who won a lawsuit striking down the state's restrictions on out-of-state wine shipments as unconstitutional.

An Ohio winemaker -- who says he would take advantage of the ruling as a collector -- welcomes the new competition.

"We have to stand on the quality of our own products," said Tony Debevc, owner of Debonne Vineyards near Madison in northeast Ohio.

U.S. District Judge George Smith on Tuesday struck down the Ohio's laws and rules that limited shipments to 15 gallons per family annually of wines that are not already for sale in Ohio stores. Ohio connoisseurs now can receive any amount of wine as long as they pay state taxes.

"It definitely is good for a business like ours," said Kent Rigsby, owner and chef of Rigsby's Kitchen who would like to offer more specialty wines on the menu of his upscale Columbus restaurant.

Lawsuit

Indiana wineries and Ohio collectors had sued in 2003, but the lawsuit was put on hold during a U.S. Supreme Court case. The high court in May struck down New York and Michigan laws that banned all out-of-state wine shipments, reviving Ohio's lawsuit and affecting similar laws in 21 other states.

Ohio regulators at first argued the state's laws were different but stopped enforcing the limits on the type and amount of wine in June.

Mark Shafer, one of the collectors and president of the Columbus branch of the International Wine and Food Society, said he now can end his practice of having wine shipped from a winery to a relative who in turn can mail the order to him.

Bans on shipments to a state were found unconstitutional because they treated out-of-state wineries differently from in-state wineries, who were allowed to ship out. New York responded to the ruling by opening up shipments. Michigan lawmakers are considering a ban on all wine shipments in and out of the state, despite pleas from small wineries there.

Attorneys for the Ohio liquor control division had been working with the court on the agreed-upon order, which affirms the changes are adequate, Commerce Department spokesman Matt Mullins said Wednesday.

Ohio also ended similar restrictions on beer shipments, Mullins said, although Smith noted his ruling applies only to wine.

Robert Epstein, lead attorney for the wineries and collectors, said he had similar lawsuits pending in nine other states including Michigan. North Carolina ended its restrictions, he said.

Restrictions

Under federal law, people are already allowed to ship wine home when they're visiting a winery; the restrictions only applied on orders from home.

As thousands of wineries open and grow nationwide, Epstein said, only a few hundred of the largest have access to grocery and liquor store shelves through big distributors. Probably about 2,500 wineries nationwide don't or can't sell their wines through Ohio retailers.

"Anytime that you have free trade between one state and another it helps the wine business overall," Epstein said.

Ohio wineries could benefit if more states end restrictions in response to the ruling, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. For example, Ohio wineries can't ship to customers who have moved to Florida, where a similar lawsuit is pending in federal court.

"Wine lovers are not brand loyal. They are grazers," Winchell said. "If direct shipping comes to be and the country opens up, I think Ohio will do well."

Competition from shipments will be small and could pressure wineries to make Ohio wines better and more affordable, said Winchell and Debevc, who are siblings.

Shipping is expensive and not worth it unless a collector is seeking an already expensive vintage from a boutique winery, Debevc said. "For those products that are unusual and that aren't available, it seems a good way to do it."




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