5 Fun Facts about Wine and U.S. Law

Wine and U.S. Law

Wine and other alcoholic beverages have had a complicated relationship with the law. It’s a highly regulated, complex industry. What I didn’t know is that wine law is also quirky and surprising.

I recently had the chance to listen to Wine Law Uncorked, a presentation by K. Christopher Branch, Esq, of KC Branch Law Firm, PC in California, who specializes in wine law. The webinar, offered through the American Bar Association, revealed a number of fun facts about wine and U.S. law. This is what I learned.

1. The Early Americans Drank Like Fish

Alcohol was a critical part of life during the 1700s and 1800s. People, mostly men, took what little they earned and imbibed a lot, according to Branch.

“The Pre-Prohibition world was chaotic at best,” he said.

Bars, which were owned by distilleries or breweries, prided themselves on pouring significant amounts of their product. This overconsumption became such a public health problem that it gave rise to the anti-alcohol Temperance Movement.

2. You Can Thank the Temperance Movement for Your Income Taxes

Although the American Temperance Movement was gaining in prominence and popularity, the booming alcohol industry paid a whopping 40 percent of the taxes in the United States, so it was a primary way to keep the government operational. If the government clamped down on alcohol consumption, as desired by the Temperance Movement, then how would the government be supported and function?

The solution the federal government came up with was the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1909, which for the first time allowed the federal government to impose income taxes. The 18th Amendment, which created Prohibition, was passed soon after in 1919.

3. Wine did Not Feel the Full Wrath of Prohibition

There was an attempt to exempt beer and wines under 14 percent alcohol from Prohibition. While that failed, the 18th Amendment did allow some exceptions. You could make your own wine up to 200 gallons, and have wine for religious or medicinal purposes. This is how some wine producers stayed afloat during this time.

4. The Laws Are a Messy Patchwork – and Sometimes Goofy

The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933, gave great power to the states to regulate wine and other alcohol. As a result, wine law varies significantly depending on which state you’re in.

The states also took the stance that everything concerning alcoholic beverages is a violation of the law unless the law specifically allowed it, said Branch. So businesses had to get special laws passed to entitle them to do something that wasn't expressly written in the law. This is why some laws are not only complex but also pretty odd. For example, in California, a restaurateur can own a winery, but only one that’s in California.