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Wine Spectator: U.S. Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Wine Law

January 17, 2019

Wine was on the docket at the highest court in the land yesterday, as eight Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Zackary Blair, the most important wine case to go before the high court in 14 years.

(Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was absent, recovering from cancer surgery at home, but she will read argument transcripts and plans to participate in the decision.) At the heart of the case is a Tennessee law that mandates liquor retailers reside in the state for several years. But some hope the court will rule broadly, striking down restrictions on how consumers buy wine in multiple states.

The crux of the case is the Tennessee law under challenge. It mandates a two-year residency to obtain an initial liquor retail license, and a 10-year residency for a renewal (even though the license expires after one year). Additionally, 100% of owners, directors, and officers have to satisfy these criteria. Two lower courts ruled that this violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution by discriminating against out-of-state businesses—and they cited Granholm, the 2005 case that struck down bans on direct shipping by out-of-state wineries in states that allowed shipping by in-state wineries, as a precedent.

But several justices raised the larger question: How powerful is the 21st Amendment? It gives states the power to pass laws to regulate alcohol sales, but how far can they go before running afoul of the Commerce Clause, which forbids states from erecting barriers to out-of-state economic interests? Wine Spectator has a full report.—Emma Balter

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