Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of alcohol beverages have been a hot topic in the alcohol industry for the last two decades. The wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past 15 or so years, most dramatically by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald. Today nearly evert state—plus the District of Columbia—allows wineries to ship wine across state lines directly to in-state consumers. The same cannot be said for spirits.

There are, however, a few avenues distillers may consider to get their products delivered to consumers around the country. Further, an initiative is underway to pursue litigation to secure DTC rights for spirits. Although it is far too early to speculate about the outcome of any such litigation, the current effort suggests the potential for interstate distiller-to-consumer sales in the coming years. Of course, lingering ambivalence toward spirits (as opposed to wine) by the public, lawmakers, and alcohol regulators makes the prospect for any legal change uncertain.

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Originally published in Artisan Spirit, July 2017.

In keeping with President Trump’s Executive Order (#13771) on regulatory reform, the Department of the Treasury recently published a Request for Information regarding its regulations. The Request covers those regulations administered by TTB under Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The Request for Information provides an unusually-clear opportunity to propose reforms to reduce regulatory burdens on the industry. Comments are due on or before July 31, 2017.

Yesterday, the en banc (full) Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the attached opinion in the case of Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, No. 13-56069.

As you may recall, the Retail Digital Network case concerns the legality of sections of California’s tied-house laws, California Business and Professions Code Section 25503(f)-(h), which prohibit manufacturers and wholesalers (and their agents) from giving anything of value to retailers in exchange for advertising their products.  Retail Digital Network (RDN), which installs advertising displays in retail stores and contracts with parties to advertise their products on the displays, sought a declaratory judgment that Section 25503(f)-(h) violated the First Amendment after RDN’s attempts to contract with alcohol manufacturers failed due to the manufacturers’ concerns that such advertising would violate these tied-house provisions.

The District Court found Section 25503(f)-(h) constitutional under a Ninth Circuit case from 1986, Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh, in which the court upheld Section 25503(h).  Then in January 2016, a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Actmedia is “clearly irreconcilable” with the Supreme Court’s 2011 opinion in Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc.  The panel accordingly would have remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings under Sorrell’s allegedly more restrictive First Amendment standard.  But the state requested an en banc (full court) rehearing, which the court granted.

Continue Reading En Banc Opinion Could Set Precedent for Tied-House Laws

Most brewers are at least somewhat familiar with federal and state laws regulating the interrelationships between members of the different industry tiers. The most well-known are the “tied house” laws, which prohibit or severely restrict brewers or beer wholesalers from owning retail establishments (and vice versa), and substantially limit the ability of brewers or beer wholesalers to provide money, free goods, or other “things of value” to retailers.

Until recently, the laws prohibiting consignment sales in the alcohol beverage industry received little attention. But in the past 18 months, the settlement of two federal investigations involving the beer industry’s biggest players has focused new attention on the subject. This article will explain consignment sale laws in an effort to prevent brewers from inadvertently violating them.

Read the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2017.

US exporters of alcohol beverages to Canada will soon face stiffer competition from their European rivals. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is expected to come into force by June 1, 2017, and Canadian duties on EU wines, beer and other alcoholic beverages will go to zero immediately. While tariffs on EU wine imports are already fairly low, products such as ciders will have their current duty rate reduced from 28 cents per liter to zero immediately. In fact, the European Commission is already extolling the expanded export opportunities for EU wine and spirit producers as a major selling point for CETA.

The US is expected to enter into formal North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations with Canada and Mexico this summer. US alcohol beverage producers and trade associations should act now to ensure that the US negotiators protect US market access in Canada and otherwise promote their interests.

The USDA report and list of EU products that will receive duty-free treatment under CETA is available here.

On March 13, the European Commission approved a report that calls on members of the alcohol beverage industry to develop a comprehensive self-regulatory system of ingredient and nutritional labeling for beer, wine, and distilled spirits. The Commission is composed of representatives of each member nation of the European Union (EU) with a range of administrative responsibilities and authority to develop and propose legislation for consideration by the European Parliament.

The European Commission characterizes access to ingredient and nutrition information as a right of EU consumers, and called on industry members to develop a self-regulatory proposal over the next year. Current EU policy on alcohol beverage labeling is analogous to US policy. The EU regulation on food labeling exempts alcohol beverages containing more than 1.2 percent alcohol-by-volume.

The European Commission proposal warrants careful attention by US alcohol beverage suppliers across all beverage categories. The initial industry response by European suppliers will likely start a lengthy process leading to new ingredient disclosures.

US regulations are largely based on the presumption that consumers have a working knowledge of ingredients in alcohol beverages. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) and its predecessor agency considered and rejected mandatory ingredient labeling proposals several times since 1970s. TTB’s most recent assessment of ingredient and nutritional labeling of alcohol beverages was an advance notice of proposed rulemaking published in 2005 soliciting public input on the existing TTB policy. No further rulemaking activity followed the TTB inquiry.

Existing TTB regulations focus on disclosures of certain ingredients that pose unique health risks or allergic reactions. Industry members are permitted to disclose ingredients on a voluntary basis.  A few alcohol beverages are subject to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, which require comprehensive ingredient and nutritional labeling.

Many US products are exported for consumption in the EU. If a new system is adopted in the EU, producers in the US must provide ingredient and nutritional information to their customers overseas with no corresponding requirements in their home markets. EU suppliers are major players in the US market and may decide to voluntarily provide the same information to their American customers that they will ultimately have to provide in their home markets.

These dynamics will likely reinvigorate calls by consumer advocacy organizations and government agencies (e.g., Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health) in support of ingredient labeling of alcohol beverages in the US. In the current era of dwindling government resources, the European Commission’s call for an industry self-regulatory initiative provides an opening for a similar initiative in the US. Industry members and associations should monitor developments in the EU and consider appropriate responses directly to the EU initiative and to analogous proposals in the US.

An English version of the European Commission proposals is available here.

To follow up on our prediction last month that the Trump Administration may take a more aggressive stance toward the legalization of marijuana, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated during the February 23 daily briefing that he anticipates greater federal enforcement of marijuana laws.  Spicer emphasized the distinction between medical marijuana (the legalization of which President Trump does not oppose) and recreational marijuana.  In discussing the latter, Spicer invoked the country’s opioid addiction crisis, suggesting a link between recreational marijuana use and such other drugs.

Spicer hinted that the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal drug laws would extend to the nine jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana, potentially putting at risk the schemes many of these states have created–or are in the process of creating–to regulate marijuana.  As of today, the recreational use of marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.  (Note:  Congress has blocked the DC government from using funds to actually implement a system to regulate recreational marijuana, so although technically legal, there is currently no “market” for recreational marijuana in DC.)

If President Trump’s Justice Department does begin to pursue more active enforcement of marijuana laws in states that have legalized marijuana, it may meet pushback from Congress.  Just last week, four congressmen announced the formation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus (the Caucus), a bipartisan organization seeking to change the federal government’s attitude toward legalized marijuana and, notably, to leave the legalization question to the states.  In support of this mission, earlier this month Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a member of the Caucus, introduced a bill (HR 975) in the House that would prevent federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (the Act) in states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Likely by design, the bill’s introduction occurred just a day before the confirmation of Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization, as Attorney General.  The bill would add a new section to the Act expressly stating that the Act’s provisions concerning marijuana do not apply to persons acting in compliance with state law regarding the possession or sale of marijuana.  The bill, titled the “Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017,” has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

Of course, whether the bill will gain enough support to pass in Congress and survive a potential Trump veto remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, the timing of the bill’s introduction, the bipartisan support it has garnered to date (half of its current cosponsors are Republicans), and the announcement of the Caucus indicate a growing tension between Congress–including some members of President Trump’s own party–and the Administration with respect to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2005 decision in Granholm v. Heald, which required states allowing their own wineries to direct-ship to consumers to also grant such privileges to out-of-state wineries, marked the beginning of a new era of wine direct-shipping. With the relaxation of wine shipping laws around the country following Granholm—nearly every state now allows wineries to ship wine directly to in-state consumers—the wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past decade. Indeed, wine shipments in 2016 saw double-digit growth in both volume and sales.

At the same time, growth in recent years in the online shopping industry has led to new innovations in the wine retail space: the existence of a multitude of internet wine retailers, wine-of-the-month clubs and mobile wine delivery apps offers consumers greater access to wine. Many states—and courts—though, are now grappling with the legalities surrounding direct shipping of wine by retailers, as well as the role of unlicensed third parties in such transactions. Some states prohibit retailers from directly shipping wine to consumers altogether, while many others give in-state retailers the right to ship wine directly to consumers while withholding the privilege from out-of-state retailers.

Most recently, in January 2017 Michigan enacted legislation allowing in-state retailers to ship wine to in-state consumers, but prohibiting out-of-state retailers from making such shipments. The new legislation, which amends Michigan’s existing statute addressing wine shipments, authorizes a retailer located in Michigan to obtain a “specially designated merchant license” in order to ship wine to in-state consumers. The specially designated merchant license is only available to in-state retailers, so retailers located outside Michigan remain prohibited from directly shipping wine to consumers in the state.

Unsurprisingly, given the requirements of Granholm (which, incidentally, concerned in part a Michigan law), the new legislation retains the right of both in-state and out-of-state wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan consumers upon obtaining a direct shipper license. In fact, the new statute even reduces the burden on wineries shipping to consumers; under the new law wineries will no longer be required to include their direct shipper license number and the order number on each shipping container, or the brand registration approval number for each shipped wine on the accompanying invoice (although label registration requirements will still apply).

The legislation does not go into effect until March 29, 2017, but already litigation involving the new law has commenced. In late January 2017, an Indiana retailer and several Michigan consumers sued Michigan’s governor and attorney general and the head of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in federal court, alleging the statute violates the US Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Privileges and Immunities Clause. Similar lawsuits are pending in Illinois and Missouri.

Some courts have already interpreted the constitutionality of similar laws that treat in-state and out-of-state wine retailers differently. While the US Courts of Appeals for the Second and Eighth Circuits have interpreted Granholm to apply only to differential treatment of producers and products (and not to wholesalers and retailers), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down as unconstitutional Texas residency requirements burdening out-of-state wholesalers and retailers. The Texas Package Stores Association appealed to the Supreme Court based on the apparent “circuit split” created by the Fifth Circuit’s decision. Although the Supreme Court denied certiorari in November 2016, differing outcomes in the currently pending suits could ultimately bring the issue of wine direct-shipping back to the Supreme Court, providing an opportunity for much-needed clarification of Granholm’s scope.

On January 30, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order No. 13771, entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” A link to Executive Oder 13771 appears here.  The Order provides:

  1. For Fiscal Year 2017 (which ends September 30, 2017):
    1. For each new “regulation” published for notice and comment “or otherwise promulgated,” the agency in question must “identify” two existing regulations to be repealed. Notably, the Order does not require the repeal to be concurrent with the publication or promulgation of the new regulation.
    2. For Fiscal Year 2017, each agency must ensure that the total incremental costs of all new and repealed regulations shall not exceed zero, unless otherwise required by law or as consistent with the advice of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The Order does not specify whether the costs in question represent costs to the agency, costs to the government or total societal costs. It also does not provide any guidance on how to calculate such costs.
    3. To the extent permitted by law, the costs of any new regulations shall be offset by the elimination of costs associated with at least two existing regulations. Once again, the Order provides no guidance on what constitute costs of a regulation or how to calculate such costs.
    4. The OMB is directed to provide agencies with guidance on how to implement the Order.
  2. Beginning with Fiscal Year 2018 (which begins October 1, 2017):
    1. The semi-annual Unified Regulatory Agenda for each agency must: (i) identify for each new regulation “that increases incremental cost,” two offsetting regulations; and (ii) provide an approximation of the total costs or savings for each new and repealed regulation.
    2. Each regulation approved by the OMB shall be included in the Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    3. Unless otherwise required by law, agencies may not issue new regulations that were not listed in the most recent Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    4. During the budgeting process, the OMB shall notify agencies of the total costs per agency that will be allowed in issuing and repealing new regulations for the upcoming fiscal year.
    5. The OMB shall provide agencies with guidance on implementing the Order’s requirements.

Executive Oder 13771 applies to each “executive department or agency,” but leaves a number of government regulatory functions outside of its scope. These include agencies involved in military, national security, and foreign affairs functions, as well as any government organization arising from the Legislative or Judicial branches. Nevertheless, the Order applies to a vast swath of the federal bureaucracy.

On its face, Executive Order 13771 could have a significant impact on the pace of federal rulemaking during the Trump Administration. The “two-for-one” requirement, in particular, appears to be a blunt instrument aimed at shrinking the Code of Federal Regulations. Moreover, the explicit requirement for cost estimates and “zero” total costs flowing from the rulemaking process plainly seeks to halt the growth and costs of the federal administrative state.

But the jury remains out on the practical impact of Executive Order 13771. Longstanding observers of the federal bureaucracy will, no doubt, recall that the Paperwork Reduction Act (1980), Executive Order 12866 (1993), the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, and other measures all failed to noticeably slow the growth or improve the functioning of the administrative state. In that spirit, President Trump’s Executive Order leaves many questions unanswered:

  1. Much hinges on the interpretation of “costs” referenced throughout the Executive Order. Does this mean the costs to the Agency, the entire federal government or society at large? And, particularly if “costs” are defined broadly, how will agencies and/or the OMB calculate such costs? The OMB presumably must arrive at answers to these fundamental questions.
  2. While a “rule” has a defined meaning in administrative law, a “regulation” does not. While the Order purports to define the term, as every lawyer in an administrative practice knows, individual “sections” within the Code of Federal Regulations are called “regulations” and come in many sizes. Does an agency satisfy the “two-for-one” rule by replacing two one-sentence regulations with a single ten-sentence regulation? The opportunities to “game” the Executive Order’s mandate seem endless.
  3. The Executive Order might not withstand a legal challenge. While the President yields broad authority over most administrative agencies, nothing in current law authorizes a “two-for-one” rule. While a full analysis is beyond the scope of this note, on its face the Order seems to push the boundaries of what a President can mandate by Executive Order.

Finally, the Executive Order may accelerate the unfortunate trend of agencies to make rules through informal documents instead of the notice-and-comment rulemaking process mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act. During the past several decades, many agencies have sought to shortcut the rulemaking process by asserting that any number of substantive rules are mere “interpretations” not subject to notice-and-comment. Too often, the legal costs and potential for relationship damage involved in challenging such rules outweighs the benefit of a challenge. (For example, how willing is a heavily-regulated brewery, winery or distillery to engage in protracted litigation with the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau?)  As a result, usually the regulated public tacitly accepts this subversion of Administrative Procedures Act requirements – requirements that flow directly from the Fifth Amendment’s requirement for Due Process of Law. By making formal notice-and-comment rulemaking even more burdensome, Executive Order 13771 will likely accelerate the pace of regulation by internet posting, bottom-drawer regulation, letter ruling and other means that do not provide the regulated public with notice and an opportunity to comment on legal requirements that will affect them.

In the end, then, President Trump’s Executive Order on Reducing Regulations leaves many important questions unanswered and, like other like-minded actions before it (e.g., the Paperwork Reduction Act), may not progress the objective of simplifying and reducing the federal bureaucracy.

In early December 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia (the Council) unanimously passed the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2016 (the Act). The Act amends a number of provisions of DC’s alcohol beverage laws, several of which particularly affect DC manufacturers, brew pubs, wine pubs and distillery pubs.

Continue Reading DC Council Passes Amendments to Alcohol Beverage Code