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Florida lawmakers consider restricting wine shipments to consumers

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers want to do away with reams of regulation — except when it comes to pinot noir.

The most heated talk in a Florida Senate commerce panel Tuesday was not on the state minimum wage or on tax credits, but on wine. Namely: Should big wineries continue to be able to ship bottles directly to Florida consumers?

No, argued Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and the sponsor of a bill winding through the state Legislature.

But he was outnumbered by colleagues who countered that wine aficionados should be able to buy their vintages from anywhere.

"They just want to be able to order wine on the Internet," said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

Tuesday's discussion came on the heels of a recent survey that showed Americans drinking more wine than ever. The United States, according to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, surpassed France last year to become the world's biggest consumer of wine.

In the Senate on Tuesday, the bill pitted Republicans looking to protect state wine producers against Republicans — led by a Democrat — touting the importance of a free market.

The original bill prohibited wineries that produced more than 250,000 gallons of wine a year from selling directly to consumers, as they do now. The threshold would affect the largest wineries that make most of the country's wine. None are in Florida.

The cap drew opposition from Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who proposed removing it from the measure. His amendment set off nearly an hour of energetic debate.

"Why are we discriminating against those wineries whose parent company produces more than 250,000 gallons?" asked Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "Other than protectionism, what other possible reason could there be?"

"Protectionism has been excoriated in this conversation as if it were bad," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "It is not necessarily bad to protect Florida businesses."

Even former Gov. Jeb Bush weighed in, via a letter he sent committee members that Dockery read aloud. Bush reminded senators of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states could regulate wine-shipping businesses but not exempt wineries within their borders from the restrictions.

Negron's proposal would also apply to Florida wineries, though none of them would have been affected by the production limits.

Of the 37 states that allow direct wine shipments, four have set similar caps like the one in Negron's bill. Two of the restrictions have been upheld by the courts and one was struck down as unconstitutional. The fourth has not faced a legal challenge.

In the end, the committee eliminated the cap by a 4-3 vote — though members left another reference to the 250,000 gallons elsewhere in the bill. It is unclear what effect that mention would have on the legislation.

The panel signed off on the rest of the bill, which would impose other regulations, licenses and fees on wine-shipping companies — including requirements that could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in excise and sales taxes to the state.

The bill also limits the number of wine cases a company can deliver annually to a household to 12, and it requires a person 21 or older to sign off on the delivery of a wine shipment.

A long legislative journey still awaits the bill. It must clear one other Senate committee and several House committees before reaching the floor of either chamber.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Florida lawmakers consider restricting wine shipments to consumers 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 11:51pm]
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