Huge win for wineries, but can I ship to Massachusetts now?

First Circuit affirms District Court decision

On Thursday, January 14th, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court in the case of Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins. The appellatte decision represents a major victory for wineries and may be the end of the case that was originally filed by Family Winemakers of California in September of 2006.

"We’re delighted with the decision on behalf of our members and all wineries across the U.S. We’re also glad that this court put its foot down about discriminatory laws, like production caps, not being able to withstand judicial scrutiny. Now it’s time to change Massachusetts law so that all wineries, not only in California but across the nation that produce more than 30,000 gallons will have an opportunity to fulfill the wine choices of Bay State residents," said Paul Kronenberg, President of Family Winemakers of California.

98% of domestic wine excluded

Massachusetts law allowed “small” wineries that produced less than 30,000 gallons per year to simultaneously ship wines directly to consumers with a “small winery shipping license” and to have their wines sold in traditional distribution through wholesalers. “Large” wineries (wineries that produce more than 30,000 gallons per year) did not have the same choices. They could either completely opt out of the three-tier system and ship wines to Massachusetts consumers with a “large winery shipping license”, or forego direct shipping to have their wines sold at wine retailers, restaurants and bars via traditional distribution.

According to the decision, the 637 wineries that qualified as “large” accounted for 98% of all wine produced in the United States in 2006. Of those 637, the top 30 producers accounted for 92% of the national market. The remaining 2% of U.S. wine production came from 4,713 “small” wineries, and 1,780 of those produced less than one gallon. In 2007, 100% of the 31 Massachusetts wineries produced less than 30,000 gallons per year.

Discrimination against interstate commerce

In November, 2008, the District Court ruled in that Massachusetts law had a discriminatory effect on interstate commerce. On Thursday, the First Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court. The decision states in relevant part:

The primary question before us is whether § 19F unconstitutionally discriminates against interstate commerce in light of both the Commerce Clause, Footnote art. I, § 8, cl. 3, and § 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment.

It is clear that § 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment does not protect state alcohol laws that explicitly favor in-state over out-of-state interests from invalidation under the Commerce Clause. Granholm v. Heald, 544 U.S. 460, 489 (2005). But § 19F is neutral on its face; it does not, by its terms, allow only Massachusetts wineries to distribute their wines through a combination of direct shipping, wholesaler distribution, and retail sales. Section 19F instead uses a very particular gallonage cap to confer this benefit upon "small" as opposed to "large" wineries.

We hold that § 19F violates the Commerce Clause because the effect of its particular gallonage cap is to change the competitive balance between in-state and out-of-state wineries in a way that benefits Massachusetts’s wineries and significantly burdens out-of-state competitors. Massachusetts has used its 30,000 gallon grape wine cap to expand the distribution options available to "small" wineries, including all Massachusetts wineries, but not to similarly situated "large" wineries, all of which are outside Massachusetts. The advantages afforded to "small" wineries by these expanded distribution options bear little relation to the market challenges caused by the relative sizes of the wineries. Section 19F’s statutory context, legislative history, and other factors also yield the unavoidable conclusion that this discrimination was purposeful. Nor does § 19F serve any legitimate local purpose that cannot be furthered by a non-discriminatory alternative.

We further hold that the Twenty-first Amendment cannot save § 19F from invalidation under the Commerce Clause. Section 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment does not exempt or otherwise immunize facially neutral but discriminatory state alcohol laws like § 19F from scrutiny under the Commerce Clause. We affirm the grant of injunctive relief.

New legislation needed

As we posted about almost three years ago, the capacity cap was not the only troubling issue with the Massachusetts wine law. The consumer aggregate volume limit provision and, more importantly, the requirement that carriers obtain a permit for each of their delivery trucks have been in some ways just as problematic for wine consumers. After DHL pulled out of the business of delivering wine, FedEx and UPS are by far and away the major two carriers for interstate delivery.

Both FedEx and UPS have chosen to avoid interstate wine shipments to Massachusetts because of the delivery vehicle permit system. This will likely not change following this decision. Technically, Massachusetts is now open to any domestic winery that holds the appropriate permit, regardless of its use of middle-tier distribution. But, without FedEx and UPS, Bay State consumers will still be out of luck for now. New legislation that eliminates the consumer aggregate volume limit and changes the delivery vehicle requirements will likely be necessary to truly open the state for Massachusetts consumers. This decision may just provide the momentum to pass a new wine shipping bill.

We’ll post further analysis from R. Corbin Houchins in the coming days, so please stay tuned. Also, for more background, see our previous posts:

Massachusetts Still Question Mark for 30K-Gallon Wineries

Up and Running (So Far)

A Battle Well-Picked and Well-Fought 

Family Winemakers Court Win is Big for the Industry

Family Winemakers of California Making Headway in Massachusetts

Why Can’t I Have a Boston Wine Party?

“New Vintage” of Wine Litigation

A response to the Family Winemakers lawsuit

Family Winemakers sues Massachusetts over capacity cap

The broader effects of Costco

MA Congress overrides Romney veto, court challenge likely

Romney introduces new bill

Massachusetts Governor vetoes wine bill


Family Winemakers v. Jenkins

Massachusetts Still Question Mark for 30K-Gallon Wineries

On January 16, 2009, the state filed its notice of appeal in the 2006 Granholm-based federal suit, Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins. The District Court had entered judgment on December 18, 2008, enjoining enforcement of a statute that prevents direct shipment by 30,000-gallon-or-more wineries that sell through Massachusetts wholesalers (a category exclusively out-of-state), while affording smaller wineries, a category for which all in-state wineries qualify, “unfettered access.”

On February 3, 2009 the District Court transmitted the record of the case to the Court of Appeals, the first step in a process that may take a couple of years. The state can move for a stay in the District Court and, if unsuccessful, apply again in the Court of Appeals. Thus, it is unknown at this point whether the appeal will, at least temporarily, reinstate the status quo ante.

Up and Running (So Far)

Happily for the plaintiffs, Judge Zobel’s final judgment in Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins took the path that seemed most likely from the tone and content of her memorandum and order of 19 November 2008 and leveled up. The judgment entered 18 December 2008 orders the state “to permit wineries of all sizes to apply for licenses under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 138, § 19F(b),” which does not contain the § 19F(a) disqualification of wineries that have sold to a Massachusetts wholesaler within six months of applying for the license, formerly applicable to all 30,000-gallon-and-over wineries. In her November opinion, the judge had noted that the “choice” to use direct shipment only after abandoning all sales through wholesalers for six months was, in effect, prohibition.

Final judgment does not settle the issue of a possible stay of the injunction pending appeal. The state has 30 days from entry of the judgment to file notice of appeal, which would be a prerequisite to moving for a stay in the trial court and, if unsuccessful there, in the Court of Appeals.

By R. Corbin Houchins, Attorney at Law

A Battle Well-Picked and Well-Fought

David does best when he can choose the right Goliath.

The Massachusetts volume cap on direct shipment, invalidated last week in Family Winemakers of Calif. v. Jenkins, was a good choice to challenge for at least three reasons. First, there was gold in the legislative record: a sponsor described the bill as “giving an inherent advantage indirectly to the local wineries,” and the cap was openly and carefully calibrated to fall just above anticipated production of the state’s largest winery. Second, the structure of the statutes permitted excising the cap without damaging the state’s basic regulatory system. Third, the statute had the additional feature of requiring wineries to choose between direct shipment and use of local wholesalers, permitting the suit to take a swipe at another dubious restriction deployed by three-tier defenders, with or without a volume cap.

Judge Zobel’s opinion proceeds from her observation that Granholm forbids both direct and indirect ways of subjecting out-of-state wineries, but not local ones, to mandatory use of a local middle tier. Granholm, however, follows precedent in drawing a distinction between state laws that openly (or “facially”) discriminate against interstate commerce and those that pursue some legitimate purpose with only an incidental disproportionate burden on interstate commerce. Courts apply a more stringent test of nearly automatic invalidity to the former, but for the latter give a state more latitude to balance its own objectives against the federal interest in free interstate trade.

Most of the court’s analysis is devoted to showing how the state law came about, which boiled down to a compromise between direct shipment proponents, who wanted a “straight” winery shipment law without a cap, and the wholesalers, who wanted no direct shipment. The middle ground was direct shipment for wineries defined as small, wherever located. If there were no more to it than that, the law could be regarded as facially neutral and therefore vulnerable only if its incidental adverse effect on interstate commerce outweighed whatever benefit the state sought in enacting the statute.

There was a great deal more to it, because the legislative history revealed an intent to set the cap so that no Massachusetts winery would fail to be categorized as small, leaving the producers of most wine sold in interstate commerce deemed large. Judicial principles governing the choice between the strict test , which applies to facially discriminatory statutes, and the more state-friendly balancing test applicable to incidentally discriminatory statutes, contain the interesting wrinkle that a statute whose purpose is shown to be protectionist is treated as facially discriminatory, even if its bare text does not reveal the discrimination. Thus, the intention revealed in legislative history put the Massachusetts statutes in the strict scrutiny category, which would require the state to prove that an important public policy objective could not have been met in any reasonable non-discriminatory way.

According to the state, its objective was to bring the blessings of direct shipment to small producers throughout the nation. Judge Zobel could not see how cutting out the larger wineries served that objective at all, and therefore flunked the statute under both the strict test for facial discrimination and the easier balancing test for upholding incidental discriminatory effects.

Invalidating the statute without requiring a finding of facial discrimination makes the case far more important in other states, where plaintiffs may not be so lucky as to find evidence of discriminatory intent leaping from the legislative record. It also makes the decision itself more robust on appeal, when the state and wholesalers argue that the sponsor’s statements quoted in the opinion were taken out of the context of a true benign intent.

Family Winemakers is also useful to pro-trade advocates in two less direct ways. (1) It explicitly rejects the defendants’ argument that the large wineries were not shut out of direct shipment because wineries of any size that had not sold wine to a wholesaler for six months could ship directly to consumers. While it might seem self-evident that forcing wineries of substantial size to abandon use of wholesalers as a precondition to using direct shipment is, in effect, denying them direct shipment privileges, in future litigation it’s much better to be able to point to a judge’s saying so. (2) In gauging effect on interstate commerce, it put the focus on the large volume of wine excluded or burdened by the statute, rather than (as the state urged) on the small number of producers who are responsible for it. That follows logically from judicial precedent, but again it’s advantageous to have it spelled out in a reported case.

Judge Zobel’s opinion is clear and impressively supported by citations to precedent, aided on both counts by the remarkably well-researched and well-argued case presented by the plaintiffs, but the suit is, of course, not yet over. The state and wholesalers will presumably move for reconsideration, which, in view of the forcefulness of the opinion, represents a dim hope for defendants. Other skirmishes may be more substantial.

What we have so far is an order granting judgment to the plaintiffs and identifying the statutes whose enforcement will be affected by the permanent injunction to be entered. The defendants will surely have much to say about how the injunction should be worded and whether it will be effective during the almost inevitable appeal.

It is important to note that the opinion of the court recognizes, as it must, that the state has the right simply to take the direct shipment statute containing the volume cap (§ 19F) off the books altogether, with the result of shutting down direct shipment for all wineries –i.e., level down. In their original complaint, plaintiffs had asked for a declaration that challenged statutes, including § 19F, were unconstitutional and an injunction against their enforcement. That left some uncertainty whether, in case the court agreed on unconstitutionality, it might grant the wish by invalidating § 19F altogether, leaving no winery with direct shipment, because of the general ban in §§ 2 and 18 on importation or transportation without specific dispensation.

In the summary judgment motion just granted, plaintiffs asked the court to enjoin enforcement of §§ 2, 18 and 19F “against any out-of-state winery engaged in direct shipping to consumers, regardless of the winery’s total annual production or affiliation with a Massachusetts wholesaler.” The court included all three statutes in its memorandum order, a clear indication that the final judgment and permanent injunction will level up by keeping the permissive and licensing parts of 19F in force and enjoining only denial of direct shipment privileges to larger wineries (including those that sell to Massachusetts wholesalers).

Less certain is the issue of a stay on appeal, which the court has discretion to grant or deny. The tenor of the opinion suggests that Judge Zobel will be reluctant to delay the effect of allowing larger wineries to use both wholesalers and direct shipment, though we can expect arguments from defendants that it will ruinously disrupt the orderly regulation of beverage alcohol in the Commonwealth. Moreover, denial of a stay in the district court does not mean the appellants would fail to obtain a stay from the Court of Appeals, which could take a couple of years to decide the case. Ultimately, the legislature can always take another cut at protecting wholesaler interests while appeals are going on, potentially rendering the ruling moot.

Even with questions about when it will become effective and the inability to predict with certainty what an appellate court or legislative assembly will do, Family Winemakers will ripple through all litigation dealing with indirect discrimination against interstate commerce. For pro-trade advocates, that’s cause to celebrate.

Family Winemakers Court Win is Big for the Industry

On November 19th, 2008, Judge Rya W. Zobel, in the case of Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins, allowed the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that Massachusetts General Laws chapter 138, section 19F:

… has a discriminatory effect on interstate commerce because as a practical matter it prevents the direct shipment of 98% of out-of-state wine to consumers but permits all wineries in Massachusetts to sell directly to consumers, retailers and wholesalers.

Therefore, the Massachusetts statute in practice prevents direct shipment of approximately 98% of out-of-state wine while allowing 100% of Massachusetts wineries to sell direct. This clearly confers disproportionate benefits on both Massachusetts wineries and wholesalers.

In the decision, Judge Zobel provided a fascinating account of the history of what became Massachusetts House Bill No. 4498. She details the original lobbying from wholesalers, pleas from in-state wineries, negotiation in the Massachusetts House and Senate, passage of the bill on November 17th, 2005, veto by then-Governor Mitt Romney, and finally an override by the Legislature on February 15th, 2006. The detailed account sheds light on a fact that we known all along – that the 30,000 gallon capacity cap was set conveniently above the production capacity of the largest winery in Massachusetts (24,000 gallons). This cap was designed to allow the Massachusetts wineries to ship directly to consumers, while simultaneously protecting Massachusetts wholesalers by prohibiting out-of-state medium and large wineries from doing the same.

The wine distribution system is shaped like an hourglass, in that there are a large number of producers (the top) and a large number of consumers (the bottom), but significantly fewer wholesalers (the middle). This structure has the effect of giving wholesalers greater bargaining power with both wineries and retailers in states where it is mandatory to have a wholesaler. Generally wholesalers prefer to carry a larger volume of a particular wine, rather than an equivalent volume of several wines, because it is more profitable for a wholesaler to warehouse, manage and sell a single
wine. Many wineries produce both specialty wines in small quantities and higher volume wines. It is rare for a winery producing approximately 30,000 gallons per year to have all of its wines represented by a wholesaler.

Family Winemakers of California put out a press release immediately yesterday, hailing the decision as a win for the industry. Paul Kronenberg, president of Family Winemakers of California, was quoted as saying “State laws that protect and perpetuate wholesaler monopolies at the expense of wineries seeking market opportunities and consumers seeking a wider choice in wine, run counter to the concept of free trade within the nation”. Tracy Genesen, lead attorney on the case from Kirkland & Ellis, said “The decision tracks Granholm, since ‘allowing States to discriminate against out-of-state wine invites a multiplication of preferential trade areas destructive of the very purpose of the Commerce Clause.” Kenneth Starr of Kirkland & Ellis explained that “Freedom to conduct commerce across state boundaries without undue restrictions was a fundamental principle of the framers of the Constitution”.

Free the Grapes! also published a press release yesterday, highlighting the case as a big loss for efforts by wholesalers to ban “legal, regulated wine shipping”. “Today’s ruling in Family Winemakers v. Jenkins strikes a blow to the wholesalers’ campaign by declaring that Massachusetts’ restrictions on winery-to-consumer shipments are unconstitutional”.

This is a big win for the industry. We applaud Family Winemakers of California, Coalition for Free Trade, Kirkland & Ellis, and everyone else involved for all of their hard work in fighting this long battle. The ruling will certainly have ripple effects not only in Massachusetts, but also Ohio, Arizona, and many other states as current and future examples of such non-facial discrimination will be questioned, challenged, and overturned.

We’ll keep you posted as this story develops. The immediate effects in Massachusetts are unknown at this time (see our post “Why Can’t I Have a Boston Wine Party?” from June, 2007). Common carrier restrictions will need to be clarified before any out-of-state shipping can commence. Stay tuned for more information and analysis…

Family Winemakers of California Making Headway in Massachusetts

Family Winemakers of CaliforniaOn May 29, 2008, Family Winemakers of California filed a motion for summary judgment in Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins, now before the federal district court for Massachusetts. The suit alleges that section 19F, the Massachusetts law that permits direct-to-consumer wine shipping, is unconstitutional because it “unequivocally discriminates against interstate commerce in both purpose and effect” by limiting direct shipment privileges to wineries annually producing no more than 30,000 gallons. The motion asks the court to declare that discrimination unconstitutional and requests that the court allow section 19F to remain in force, but enjoin Commonwealth of Massachusetts officials from applying the volume cap.

Section 19F was modified to replace a prior Massachusetts local-only direct shipping law, which was found facially discriminatory and invalidated in Stonington Vineyards, Inc. v. Jenkins. The current motion argues that the new text in section 19F was simply a more subtle means to accomplish the same protectionist ends. The bill that amended 19F was vetoed by Governor Romney, who declared that the measure would not cure the previous law’s deficiencies. The Massachusetts legislature, however, overrode his veto and signed the bill into law, setting the stage for judicial determination of which side was right.

Section 19F as amended creates a two-classification system based on the size of the winery’s annual production and wholesaler relationship. Section 19F(a) presents a choice for wineries producing more than 30,000 gallons annually –in effect, they can ship directly to consumers or have wholesaler representation. Wineries producing no more than 30,000 gallons annually can ship directly to consumers while also maintaining a relationship with a wholesaler.

Family Winemakers of California’s summary judgment motion alleges that the “large” wineries are primarily out-of-state and that section 19F, though facially neutral on location, is in intent and effect protectionist and discriminatory. Moreover, the law specifically dictates that fruit wine does not count toward the gallonage cap; the motion argues that a much larger portion of wine produced in Massachusetts is fruit wine than wine produced elsewhere, enhancing the discriminatory effect.

Unsurprisingly, Massachusetts has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment in response, arguing that section 19F is facially-neutral, not discriminatory, and less restrictive than similar laws in other states that have been upheld. The Commonwealth’s motion requests that the court join the courts in Maine, Kentucky, and Arizona which have left production caps in effect in their respective states. An amicus brief filed by the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts also supports the 30,000-gallon production cap. A key problem with challenges in other states has been the lack of economic evidence supporting discriminatory effects; the current motion attempts to bypass that requirement, in part on the grounds that the previous flat ban on out-of-state direct shipment prevented compilation of economic evidence, excusing the plaintiff from a burden of proof it could not meet because of the defendants’ unlawful conduct.

Oral argument is scheduled for July 29, 2008. If the court determines that a genuine issue of material fact does not exist as outlined in either of the individual motions, the court will grant the motion of the party whose legal argument It finds persuasive. However, the court could deny both motions and rule that evidence is required to resolve issues of fact.

If the court grants the plaintiff’s motion, the resulting injunction enjoining Massachusetts from enforcing the capacity cap and the wholesaler relationship restriction of 19F would, in theory, open the state to shipments from out-of-state wineries. However, obstacles to direct shipments into the state might persist. For example, the decision would not directly affect current carrier policies; FedEx and UPS could continue to refuse to ship to Massachusetts. In addition, an injunction might not resolve issues apart from the volume cap, such as how individual importation limits would be enforced by state officials.

Whatever its outcome, Family Winemakers of California v. Jenkins will serve as an important precedent on the constitutionality of capacity caps. In particular, a plaintiff’s victory on summary judgment would significantly lower the evidentiary bar for challenges to thinly-veiled protectionist measures presented as facially neutral.