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Costco-Granholm battle lines forming in Ohio

Ohio wineries selling to state residents operate under a mandatory 33.3% markup system, whether distributing directly or through a wholesaler.

Under past law, wineries outside the state could not sell to Ohio consumers at all. To comply with Granholm, the state accepted a consent decree permitting consumers to purchase directly from out-of-state wineries, beginning in July 2005. The decree makes no provision for minimum markups, and shipments are authorized so long as the parties comply with pre-existing § 4307.08 of the statutes and § 4301:1-1-23 of the regulations and use the new form at www.liquorcontrol.ohio.gov/1516pdf.pdf.

Although the Commerce Clause may not prohibit Ohio’s treating interstate commerce more favorably than local commerce (the reverse of local protectionism condemned by Granholm), the current system could be interpreted as favoring in-state wineries by shielding them from local price competition. More immediately significant is the political problem arising from competitive pricing by out-of-state sellers, to the detriment of Ohio wholesalers and retailers.

Governor Taft’s response has been to propose legislation applying the mandatory markup to out-of-state sellers. A rival proposal would limit all direct selling to wineries producing no more than 150,000 gallons annually. State legislative hearings are likely this fall.

Both proposals raise significant legal issues. Minimum markups were invalidated under federal antitrust law in Costco, a result consistent with earlier cases in Kentucky and Kansas. Volume caps are problematic, with court challenges now in early stages. Invalidity under Granholm is possible, if a court finds the threshold, which is typically just above the largest home state winery, a de facto discrimination against interstate commerce relative to local commerce. Otherwise, the law will be evaluated under an “unreasonable burden” test, in which the regulatory interest of the state is weighed against disadvantage to out-of-state sellers, with a less certain outcome than in cases of outright protectionist discrimination.

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