Drinks

Holiday cheer: Could we soon be shipping alcohol by mail?

Dec. 19, 2013 at 11:01 AM ET

alcohol by mail
Edward Deitch
Currently, you can't ship alcohol through the U.S. Postal Service, but there's a renewed effort to change that.

For the wine industry, like many other businesses, this is one of the biggest shipping weeks of the year, with countless gift bottles and cases of wine being sent around the country in time for Christmas and New Year’s. But once again, the U.S. Postal Service, which shipped 3.5 billion packages last year, is cut off from the alcohol shipping business.

That’s because it’s illegal to send wine, beer or spirits through the mail in this country. It has been since 1909 when a temperance-era law banned the Postal Service from shipping “all spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented or other intoxicating liquors of any kind.” Prohibition kicked in a decade later, and although the ban on selling alcohol was lifted in 1933 the mail restriction was not and remains in place to this day.

But now, there is a renewed effort by both the Postal Service and Congress to again permit the mailing of alcohol, at a time when such carriers as UPS and FedEx have swept up the business as many states have relaxed their laws governing the shipment of wine.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans to consider the latest bill that addresses the issue, the broad Postal Reform Act of 2013, which includes a provision to permit producers of wine, beer and distilled spirits to mail them to consumers in states that allow such shipments.

For the Postal Service, it’s a way of raising revenue by an estimated $50 million or so a year, which may seem like a drop in the bucket when you consider that the agency reported a deficit of $5 billion in the fiscal year that just ended (down from almost $16 billion the year before).

“This one change is not a silver bullet, but what I like to call a silver BB,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee’s chairman and the bill’s co-sponsor, told TODAY.com. “And what the Postal Service needs is a lot of these.”

Even the Postal Service is looking forward to the change. David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said in an email that “We support these provisions as a sensible way to eliminate this unfair competitive barrier on [the] Postal Service and generate new revenue.”

While wine producers would be able to ship their bottles by mail, retailers, including many with thriving Internet businesses, would still have to rely on Fed Ex and UPS. But Jim Trezise, president of the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation, a trade group, thinks the measure is a good first step because the presumably lower prices of mailing wine would benefit producers that sell directly to consumers, which he called “the fastest-growing segment of the wine industry.”

“The vast majority of wineries,” he said, “not just in New York but in the United States, are small operations that generally do not have distribution through wholesalers.” He said that having a new and less expensive shipping option would help their businesses grow.

And because the Post Office “basically serves everybody,” as Trezise put it, the mail option could make more people interested in wine. “People who hadn’t thought about it in the past would be thinking about it,” he said.

So why has a seemingly good idea taken so long to implement?

“The Postal Service has never been accused of being especially entrepreneurial,” Sen. Carper said. “That has not always been their strong suit. Sometimes when they say they’d like to do something different they’ve been shut down by Congress. I think we realize now if the Postal Service is going to survive they’re going to have to be more innovative, more entrepreneurial. As they do that, we have to stop saying ‘you can’t do that.’”

Edward Deitch is a James Beard Award-winning wine critic. Find many more of his wine reviews and commentary on his blog, Vint-ed.com, and follow him on Twitter

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