The Politics of Wine: Trade Barriers, Interest Groups, and the Commerce Clause


Alan E. Wiseman is assistant professor of political science, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210-1373. Jerry Ellig is senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and adjunct professor at the School of Law, George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22201.


We investigate the contemporary impacts of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution by focusing on recent changes in state laws governing interstate direct shipment of alcohol. The elimination of interstate trade barriers, consistent with the intent of the commerce clause, clearly facilitates efficient markets. More specifically, in 2003, the state of Virginia legalized direct wine shipping to consumers from out-of-state sellers, and by 2004, the average price differential between online sellers and bricks-and-mortar stores in Northern Virginia was approximately 26–40% lower than in 2002. Virginia bricks-and-mortar retailers also began pricing their products as a function of interstate shipping costs following the legalization of direct shipment. These findings regarding the elimination of trade barriers serve as a guidepost to policymakers in various states who need to revise their laws in response to the Supreme Court's 2005 ruling striking down discriminatory direct shipment bans. The distributive consequences of these legal changes should induce intense political competition and mobilization among producers, consumers, retailers, and other affected parties. Consideration of these recent political debates over changes in alcohol regulatory structures within Virginia, Illinois, and several other states provides an illustration of the impacts of interest group competition on lawmaking and the political consequences of the commerce clause.