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In a move that's sure to titillate cork dorks and inflame Texas liquor wholesalers and retailers by potentially pestering their profit margins, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon in Houston ruled late last week that a Texas law prohibiting direct wine shipments to consumers was unconstitutional. In a 43-page opinion, Harmon ruled that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code discriminates against out-of-state vintners and wine shippers, especially small ones, by outlawing direct consumer shipments, forcing Texas consumers to go through state distribution channels. She added the ban benefits "Texas wholesalers and retailers by means of such economic protectionism, negatively impacting Texas consumers because of more limited wine selection and higher prices, and impeding interstate commerce in violation of the commerce clause."

The ruling was prompted by a suit filed against state regulators last spring by a trio of Houston wine aficionados, including former state Rep. Roland R. Pennington, alleging that the ban on direct wine shipments to Texas consumers from wineries, wine clubs, and Internet vendors violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Avid wine drinkers and wine collectors often resort to such channels to purchase rare wines and bottlings from small wineries unable to secure wide distribution. "It's going to inure to the benefit of everybody, including the distributors and the retailers," says Fort Worth attorney and Fort Worth Star-Telegram wine writer Sterling Steves, who filed the suit along with a Houston law firm. "They can sell wine on the Internet just like everybody else."

Though somehow, it's hard to imagine Texas wholesalers and retailers popping corks and unscrewing lampshades over Harmon's verdict. Powerful Texas liquor distributors, fearing the slightest competitive chink in their distribution systems, have valiantly fought to keep Texas direct-ship bans locked in place. The Texas Legislature, at wholesaler nudging, even toyed in the last legislative session with making the fearsome practice an extraditable felony punishable by prison time for any out-of-state winery or retailer who dared ship wine or any other bottled sauce directly to a Texas consumer.

Will Texas' liquor cops fight Harmon? "We just got a copy of [the ruling], so we're still trying to digest it and figure out exactly what all it does," says assistant Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission administrator Randy Yarbrough. "We'll probably be leaning toward an appeal."

Mark Stuertz

E-mail Dish at markstz@flash.net.


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