For an awful lot of the world, the image of Kentucky is the image of a hillbilly sitting on the front porch of a shack, squirrel rifle across his lap. It is an image of ignorance, isolation and closed-minded hostility that the state and its residents have been fighting for decades. And its an image that, in the world of wine, the state in many ways deserves.
The most exciting things going on in wine are going on outside of traditional distribution channels, away from the established premier cru vineyards and old-line wineries. The advent of the Internet has empowered hundreds of artisan wine makers to sell their produce over the web. These wines are referred to, somewhat perversely, as mailing list wines, since they’re sold largely by subscription and delivered by common carrier — but almost never by the Post Office. In addition, the number and accessibility of online wine auctions has grown, making rare and old wines available even to people who don’t go to live auctions.
That excitement is not available to consumers in Kentucky, which has among the most restrictive wine shipping laws in the country. Anyone shipping wine into Kentucky through other-than-standard distribution risks felony prosecution. Buy a bottle of something rare and unavailable locally and it could land you in jail.
Kentucky’s anti-shipping laws are, as laws restricting the ability of grown-ups to live their lives without government interference almost always are, justified with expressions of concern for the children. Our lawmakers ooze angst that allowing Kentucky’s adults to participate fully in the outside world will make it possible for teenagers to buy their Saturday night six-pack over the Internet, and to prevent that lawmakers have erected a legal wall around the state.
In reality, Kentucky’s shipping laws have little do with protecting kids. The real force behind the restrictions is the existing distribution system, the so-called three-tiered complex of importers, distributors and retailers who have a vested interest in fending off competition. They’ve got big investments in bricks and mortar, and even those of us who don’t believe that the free flow of wine across state lines would cut significantly into their business should understand their hesitancy to mess with the system that feeds their families.
In the last couple of years there have been a flurry of court decisions regarding the interstate shipment of wine. The cause of the underlying lawsuits have been laws in many states — including Kentucky — that allow local wineries to ship within a state but restrict the shipping of wine by out-of-state wineries. The Supreme Court ruled those laws were an illegal restriction of interstate commerce. The result has been, in most states, a liberalization of shipping laws.
Kentucky is not one of those states, however. The commonwealth has a decidedly split personality when it comes to alcoholic beverages — we manufacture bourbon and then don’t let people drink it. Kentucky conformed to the Supreme Court’s ruling by constructing new bureaucratic hoops for those who want to buy and sell wine to jump through. The state allows wineries producing less than 50,000 gallons a year to ship freely — coincidentally, every winery in Kentucky — as long as that winery applies for and is granted a license to do so. The only wineries licensed so far have been local wineries, who can easily run the paperwork around to the various state offices.
Wineries in distant and exotic wine producing regions like, say, California, have to apply for a Kentucky license. They have to hire local counsel to fill out the paperwork and handle the application process. Not one out of state winery has gone to that bother because the market here is too small to justify the time and expense. There’s also no good business reason for them to expand into Kentucky, since the tiny wineries that sell by mailing list sell out every vintage anyway.
Wine lovers in Kentucky thus remain locked-out of the world of mailing list wines, and Kentucky remains, to those in the wine business, a forbidding and hostile place where one wrong move can land them in jail.
On the auction side of things, nothing has changed at all. Out-of-state auction houses can only sell in Kentucky if they’re licensed, and the only way they can get licensed is if they’re not-for-profit. So forget it. The bargain basement buying opportunities for rarities and cult wines that fill the wine media are not something residents of Kentucky can take advantage of.
If you’re a Kentucky resident interested in buying wine at online auction you have two choices, the most realistic of which is to forget it. Every significant auction site lets you know from the outset they won’t ship to Kentucky.
The other option is to find a friend in a state where direct shipping is allowed and have you wine sent there. That’s what I do. I buy an occasional rare bottle — my most recent was a 20 year old Chateau Guiraud Sauternes — and have it shipped to a friend. Then, a couple of times a year I visit that friend and pick up my wine. That is, to say the least, an incredible inconvenience.
It is, our legislators assure us, for the children, to keep the youngsters from going online to buy their booze. And that’s fine.
But here’s what I wonder: Kentucky is in a desperate race to become part of the modern world. Our economy is way too dependent on agriculture and heavy industry, and we’re falling behind in education and innovation. The state’s reputation is less than outstanding; ask anyone on either coast what they know about Kentucky and once they get past the Derby and basketball they’re likely to describe that hillbilly sitting on the porch of his shack. The kind of people who are going to change that image — educated, worldly, economically advantaged — are the kind of people who take wine seriously. People who take wine seriously tend to view wine as a major part of their lives. Having state laws that restrict their access to the most interesting wine markets confirms the state’s hillbilly image, making it harder to get people to take the state seriously. The very people Kentucky is trying to attract may not even consider the state as a possibility.
It’s a small thing, I know. But next time you wonder why it is that the rest of the world thinks of Kentucky as a hillbilly state, remember that at least in part the reason is that we are a hillbilly state. We decide, every day, to cut ourselves off from the outside world, to sit — in effect — on the front porch and watch the world pass us by.