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Jefford on Monday: The Rarest of Freedoms

An unanticipated consequence of living in France is that I don’t seem to need wine retailers much any more. If I want to buy some wine from a particular producer or domain in Alsace, in Champagne or in Provence, I ring them up, we sort out a few financial details, and a couple of days later a man clambers out of a van and hands over a box. Welcome to the rarest of drinking freedoms: direct wine shipping.

Photo: Inniskillin vineyards

It’s hard to think of a more vexed wine topic in North America than this one, and any article accurately resuming the state of play regarding direct wine shipping in the USA and Canada would approach book length. I’ll spare you that, but let’s just swoop over some recent saliencies.

A little earlier this summer, it seemed as if Canada had taken a great leap forward. Prior to June 28th 2012, citizens weren’t allowed to move ‘intoxicating liquors’ for personal consumption over provincial borders. Plenty of citizens did exactly that and evaded punishment, since the borders aren’t policed, but they had to drive their Inniskillin Vidal Icewine or the Pelee Island Riesling back home to Nova Scotia themselves; they couldn’t ring the winery (as I can here in France) and ask for the wine to be shipped. Since June 28th, they can. Well, sort of.

The phrasing of what became known as the ‘Free My Grapes’ bill legalized the importation of wine from one province to another “in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province”. In other words, the final decision on direct shipping was left to the province in question. Some provinces, led by British Columbia, have unambiguously embraced direct shipping; others (including Ontario itself) haven’t. It may be that consumer pressure eventually wins the day and foot-shuffling provincial governments retreat. The picture in the USA, of course, is no less complex. The Canadian bill acquired its name from the Free The Grapes! campaign in the USA. Most states do allow direct shipping, though eleven (including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) don’t. The bills fly to and fro in the land of the lobbyist.  

Opposition to direct shipping, of course, tends to come from wholesalers and retailers – which in Canada means the mighty Liquor Control Boards, Corporations and Commissions. Some provinces (like Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) have monopoly retailers; others (like Quebec) are more relaxed, allowing the kind of retailing scene Europeans are used to. Intriguingly, the Free My Grapes bill simply mentioned direct shipment of ‘wine’ and not ‘Canadian wine’, though British Columbia took pains to make that stipulation. This legislation, in other words, could potentially undermine the power of retailers. If you lived in Toronto and your favourite Sancerre was cheaper from a Quebec retailer than from the LCBO, who would you prefer to buy from?

The European scene doesn’t smell quite so strongly of market control, but the dream of direct shipment from producers to consumers within the European Union remains precisely that: a dream. Sweden retains its monopoly retailer, the Systembolaget (though it is under challenge from direct-shipping or monopoly-busting initiatives, including that of the wild man of UK wine retail, Cliff Roberson). Finland, too, still has its ALKO monopoly — though internet wine sales are now allowed there, so its grip is easing.  

Yet until there is duty harmonisation on alcohol sales within the EU (i.e. never), direct shipments from producers in the lower-duty, vine-growing nations of the south to consumers in the higher-duty, wine-drinking nations of the north will remain either illegal, or prohibitively complex and expensive. Personal imports in the boot of your own car, of course, are a different matter, but the legislators know full well that these are a fiscally insignificant sop to that distant pan-European ideal.

There is one advantage to the rarity of this freedom. Yes, it’s delicious to be able to buy direct from source when you know that source intimately – but what if you don’t? or what if you only want a little wine with a lot of variety? It’s hard, in France, to get a well-chosen, ready-mixed case of French wines, let alone wines with the magnificent global sweep UK consumers take for granted. A great retailer can be the consumer’s best friend – and I miss the UK’s great retailers, with their lavish knowledge base, their high-effort buying traditions and their magnificently researched offers. Now I have to do all of that myself.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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