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Senate OKs bill to restrict Net alcohol sales

Lawmakers unanimously pass a bill, which President Clinton is expected to sign, that includes language authorizing states to restrict the sale of alcohol over the Internet.

    On your next anniversary you'll be able to order flowers, candy and a romantic CD at home in front of the computer, but you'll probably have to leave the house to buy the champagne.

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    The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed 95-0 a bill that included language authorizing states to restrict the sale of alcohol online. The House of Representatives already passed the bill, primarily an anticrime bill targeted at sex trafficking, on Friday by a similarly overwhelming vote of 371-1. The bill was sent to the White House, and President Clinton is expected to sign it.

    Small vineyards have viewed the Web as the perfect way to reach new customers. Only the largest 5 percent of wineries have their merchandise distributed by the dominant wholesalers, according to the American Vintners Association. However, concerns about underage purchasing of alcohol online gave momentum to the legislation just passed.

    "The wine wars have been uncorked," said Jeremy Benson, executive director of Free the Grapes, a lobbying group for small wineries. He said state legislators "will be hearing from some very irate constituents who will interpret the bill as further restricting access and choice."

    Under the bill, drafted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, state attorneys general will be able to sue alcohol producers to stop shipments into states that prohibit imports.

    The law strengthens a provision of the Constitution's 21st Amendment that gives states the right to control alcohol transport within their borders. That amendment was the one that ended Prohibition.

    The bill has resulted in a split in the wine community, with large producers and wholesalers supporting the legislation and small producers opposing it.

    Major campaign donors such as the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America and the National Beer Wholesalers Association supported the bill.

    They argued that allowing direct sales to consumers would cost jobs in the wholesale industry, an industry that pays billions of dollars a year in local, state and federal taxes.

    According to Benson, 19 states allow regulated direct wine shipments, while intrastate shipments are permitted in 30 states. He said "momentum is shifting toward consumer access and fair and open trade" among state legislatures.

    Any retailer attempting to sell wine or other spirits online will have to be aware of the regulations in each state, which could include some form of age verification or could involve an outright ban.