Michigan Law on Buying, Shipping Wine Gets More Complicated

Lawsuit could eventually result in the same basic decision that happened in Granholm v. Heald and pry the regulations open even further


As if our state’s laws on shipping wine weren’t complicated enough, they got a little bit more complex this year when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new bill — one that has set off a small flurry of concern.

This new law deals only with you, the consumer, and buying and shipping wine directly from retailers inside Michigan. 

Effectively, you can now do that legally. But you still are not allowed to legally buy online or from a store in, say, New York, California, or anywhere else in the country. 

Inside Michigan is fine. Outside is a no-no.

There has been a lot of confusion about what the new law (PA 520) does. 

There was a time when shipping wine into or out of Michigan, or between customers and wineries inside Michigan, was just plain illegal. 

The case that changed Michigan regulations was Granholm v. Heald, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. 

The case was brought to court by wine writers Ray and Eleanor Heald, who had sued because they could not get certain wines in Michigan that they contended were essential research for their work as wine journalists.

The Supreme Court eventually kicked it back to U.S. District Court in Detroit for a 2008 revision with a directive that Michigan should revise its pertinent liquor law. It basically ruled that the law violated a commerce clause by favoring in-state wineries at the expense of out-of-state wineries.

Eventually it opened the way for Michigan residents to buy wine directly from wineries outside the state and ship them here by the standard package service, such as FedEx or UPS. It also had some secondary labeling and handling requirements. 

Sharon Martin, director of the licencing division of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission says there is no change to the Granholm v. Heald outcomes under PA 520 as far as your right to purchase and ship bottles or cases from wineries in Michigan, California, New York, or anywhere else. 

“The way I see it, PA 520 adds more ease and variety to what the consumer can buy,” Martin says, allowing consumers to buy and ship wines from Michigan stores not near them — whether it’s Kalamazoo, Birmingham, Lansing, or anywhere. 

But what PA 520 does not allow is for you to buy from out-of-state stores.

So what does the future hold? In my view, a lawsuit could eventually result in the same basic decision that happened in Granholm v. Heald and pry the regulations open even further.

One argument from distributors and importers for why this new law is good and will work has been that you can now get any wine you want in Michigan anyway, so there is no need to go looking for it on the internet. 

Having been through that kind of search in Michigan many, many times, I think that suggestion is truly delusional. 

The whole genesis of these cases has always been about limited access and availability to certain hard-to-find or unusual wines. 

The fact is that most Michigan importers and distributors are notorious for having no interest in a wine unless they can buy and sell it in volume, by the pallet. Little lots are costly and make them less money. And that part of the issue has not changed.

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