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Jersey's Grape Progress

Nothing’s ever simple in New Jersey. I know: I grew up there (and in 1992 I had the mullet to prove it). Not only is it illegal to pump your own gas, this same state somehow managed to produce Frank Sinatra and Snooki.

It should be no surprise, then, that while the state government overwhelmingly passed a bill allowing Garden State residents to order bottles directly from wineries in and outside of New Jersey, it’ll be a little while before a bottle of Cabernet goes from St. Helena to Hackensack with the click of a mouse.

Granted, the new law – signed by Gov. Chris Christie – is a very good start. But coming with it are some complexities that explain why it’s not yet time to surf over to your favorite winery’s website (or to Lot18, for that matter), and start ordering:

—Wineries wishing to ship directly to New Jersey residents must buy a certain type of license, first. Not only will it take the state time to set up its new system (it officially opens May 1), New Jersey’s license is expensive – close to $1,000. Some states charge as little as $100 for their shipping licenses, so many wineries might think twice before (eventually) buying.

—There’s a provision in the bill that says wineries producing over a certain volume of wine per year are not able to apply for a license. Other states have tried – and failed – to include provisions like this in the past, either as a result of constituent sentiment or outright legal challenge. On the bright side, New Jersey’s volume cap is very high (250,000 gallons per year), so many small-production brands will still be eligible for shipping to the Garden State.

—Out-of-state retailers are not permitted to ship to New Jersey residents – but New Jersey retailers can. That was the case before this bill became law, and it still is. In other words, let’s say a winery has sold out of a particular bottle you’re looking for … but a wine shop in San Francisco has it; unfortunately, it’s illegal for that wine shop to send you the bottle. This will certainly be a point of contention in the future if, for example, you live in New Jersey and regularly order shipments from wine shops in other parts of the state. Why would in- and out-of-state wineries be treated equally, but not in- and out-of-state retailers? Many see this sort of contradiction as a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, so you can expect a lawsuit to be filed in the not-too-distant future over this portion of New Jersey’s new law. (And you’ll hear a lot more about the Commerce Clause in the months ahead, as it also happens to the be a central point of debate in the Supreme Court case over President Obama’s healthcare plan.)

In all, the new law is a great start for New Jersey’s wine lovers. Just keep in mind, though, that the notion of ordering wine directly from high-end producers in other states could suffer the same fate as that new Hudson River tunnel: a good idea that got off and running, but never actually went anywhere.

For now, the best advice is to sit tight and see what happens on May 1. Usually in New Jersey, things change for the better. Case in point: I eventually lost my mullet.