Black and white image of historic ships on water for shipping purposes

Black and white image of historic ships on water. | Photo by The Cleveland Museum of Art

History of Wine Shipping in the United States

While it seems that transporting wine from state to state in the US has become a smoother process in recent years, the history of wine shipping in the United States has not always been this easy. Though we still face challenges when transporting modern wine bottles, cases, and bulk containers, the transport methods have vastly improved throughout the years.

From amphorae (clay vessels) to oak barrels and bottles, even the container of choice for transporting wine worldwide (and in the US) has shifted and evolved throughout the years. Below, we evaluate these shifts, focusing on transport from state to state, politics that affected wine shipping, and the country’s current state of wine transportation.

Early Methods to Transport Wine in the US

Barrels for shipping wine and other spirits on a small boat.

Barrels for shipping wine and other spirits on a small boat. | Photo by Benoît Deschasaux on Unsplash

The first method for transporting nearly all the wine to the US was via ship since wine was not produced in the US until the mid-1500s. However, this wine was not widely adopted. In the early 1600s, Europeans would travel to the US and bring native European wine grape plants. Unfortunately, they were not successful as these wine plants would not grow on US soil. Native US grape varieties were available. However, they had a different flavor than the options in Europe, so they did not appeal to the Europeans arriving in the States.

During this time, wine was still being imported from other countries into the US. In the 1600s, fortified wine became very popular, especially among US consumers, since it had a longer shelf-life. Unfortified wine would quickly oxidize on the ships, creating undrinkable vinegar.

In 1740, the first European-American grape hybrid plant was successfully grown (Alexander Grape). While it no longer exists (and the exact type of plants is unknown), it was a positive step toward growing grapes in the US for European immigrants.[1]

A Shift in Wine Shipping

Train moving on tracks next to wine grape vines to transport wine.

Train moving on tracks next to wine grape vines to transport wine. | Photo by Lumin Osity on Unsplash

In the 1800s and 1900s, railroads began developing around the world. Because of this, it became much easier to ship wine barrels across the land. Eventually, in the 1900s, wine slowly shifted to being shipped in glass bottles. Initially, retailers avoided shipping wine in glass bottles as they broke easily during transit. However, as technology advanced, the ability to create thicker, more durable glass emerged. During this time, the shape of the bottles were also altered, creating stronger glass containers that could be used to transport wine.

Wine continues to be transported via boat, train, and truck to retailers and customers. With options like FedEx and UPS offering the ability to deliver wine directly to customers, wine drinking has become much easier in the US.[2]

Did you know? Chianti bottles were initially made with thin glass that broke easily and often during transport. To combat the wine waste, the famous Chianti “fiasco” was created. This fiasco consisted of blanched straw that was wrapped around the bottles, which allowed them to stand up straight and offered added protection during shipping. [3]

Wine Shipping Laws in the US

In the early 1900s, wine prohibition went into effect in the US. This event harmed the number of wineries, causing nearly all to shut down throughout the 13-year alcohol selling/buying ban. By the time the Prohibition was lifted, only about 4% of the pre-prohibition wineries were still in use.

Of course, this is not the only political issue that has arisen around shipping wine and spirits in the US throughout wine history. As mentioned below, many states’ wine retailers are not able to transport wine to other states. Through the years, there have been cases that dictate the specific laws which apply to this transportation. For example, in 2005, it was ruled by the Supreme Court that out-of-state wine retailers could not be banned from shipping wine to customers in states that allowed their wines to be shipped outside of the state.[4]

Laws surrounding alcohol vary from state to state, from whether or not transport over state lines is legal to whether alcohol can be sold on Sundays, Election Days, specific hours of the day, etc. With these various laws in place, wine retailers may find where they can distribute their goods confusing. Because of this, retailers need to keep up to date on the current distribution laws within the US. Hopefully, the future will bring a more unified distribution law nationwide for ease of transport.[5]

Maintaining Wine Integrity During Transport

Wine is susceptible to heat, cold, humidity, temperature fluctuations, oxidation, and other factors, which has historically made shipping wine challenging. These factors affect more than the flavor of fine wines; they also impact whether the wine is safe to drink. Rapid fluctuations in temperature can cause the wine to spoil, referment, or otherwise become unsuitable to consume.

Because of this, the method of transportation needs to prevent temperature changes and humidity from reaching the wine inside the containers. Thus, the method, location, and route must all be considered thoroughly when plotting the shipping of wine, especially when it’s transported in larger quantities.

Additional methods can be employed to help keep the wine safe during transit, such as using dry or refrigerated containers. Otherwise, a specific foil can be added to dry containers, which helps keep humidity out, further protecting the wine during transit. This addition of foil also helps protect against extreme temperatures that the container may be traveling through.[6]

Current Wine Industry Transportation

Now that shipping companies like FedEx and UPS are in the picture transporting wine has become quicker, more efficient, and easier than transport via ship. Now, online retailers and wine subscription services can pack a case with various wine bottle counts and ship them to the consumer. Businesses with the proper alcohol licenses can use these transport methods to deliver wine to customers like most other items ordered online.

Moving larger bulk containers of wine is another story entirely. Instead of delivering wine in glass bottles, it’s shipped inside a Flexitank. These large plastic bladders allow wine producers to ship about double the amount of wine in one container than if their product was packed in a glass bottle. Each Flexitank can hold the amount of liquid normally in 30,000 wine bottles. These plastic bladders are a relatively new invention, only appearing about 15 years ago.

Iso tanks are another transport container that has only appeared in the last century. These tanks are more durable and heavier than Flexitanks, causing them to be a pricier (yet more stable) method of moving wine across land. Both types of tanks can be placed on trains/trucks. A third method exists, which includes transporting wine in stainless steel wine tanker trucks.[7]

Issues with Shipping Wine Throughout the US

Various wine bottles shelved in rows at a restaurant.

Various wine bottles shelved in rows at a restaurant. | Photo by Florent B. on Pexels

While it has become easier for wine producers and distributors to transport wine throughout the US in recent years, many challenges still arise today. For example, only some states (fewer than 50%) can legally transport wine from retailers outside the state lines directly to consumers. The following states allow retailers to ship wine to consumers outside the state: California, Alaska, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The full list (from 2017) includes 14 states in total.

Within these restrictions, certain states cannot participate in wine transport with certain locations. For example, though California can legally sell wine to other locations within the US, it cannot ship to specific counties in Alaska, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and West Virginia.

However, there has been somewhat of a gray area with wine transportation between states, as in past years, distribution has not been regulated as heavily. Therefore, customers have had the opportunity to purchase and drink wine from other states, even if selling across state lines was prohibited for that particular area.

Of course, the above challenges only apply to retailers selling directly to customers. Now, there are wine subscription companies and online wine retailers, each with their own transportation challenges. The laws also vary for wineries shipping wine to consumers who live out of state.[8]

Wine Shipping in the Future

The future of wine transportation is filled with greener transport methods and innovation. According to Seven Fifty Daily, the global trend shows a push toward more eco-friendly wine transport. These global transport companies aim to minimize the impact on the climate by reducing carbon emissions. In fact, the US, along with other countries like Italy, France, Australia, and South Africa, have pledged to be as close to zero greenhouse gas emissions as possible by 2050. While the methods for reducing carbon emissions are not set in stone, this will likely change how glass wine bottles (or oak barrels) even within a single country.[9]

In this case, it’s easy to say, “Drinking wine is like consuming history,” as you’re celebrating the transportation advancements in the US that allow you to easily purchase and receive spirits. With each sip, you can salute the efforts of the European winemakers who traveled to the US long ago and persisted in creating the first hybrid grape vines and the first US winery.

Did you know? The US has over one million acres of land used for growing wine grapes, making it the fourth biggest creator of wine behind Italy, France, and Spain.[10]

This Day in Wine History

1562 – French Huguenots arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, and create the first US wine from a local muscadine grape, Scuppernong.

1619 – The first Vitis Vinifera vines are transported from Europe to the US in an attempt to create wine that tastes less reminiscent of farm animals. Unfortunately, these first vines did not survive.

1920 – The start of Prohibition. It would last about 13 years, making it more challenging for US consumers to drink wine, beer, and other spirits as buying/selling wine became illegal (except in certain circumstances).

1933 – Prohibition ends, leaving behind fewer than 100 wineries in the US. Before Prohibition, an impressive 2,500 wineries existed throughout the US.

References

[1] Staff, words: VinePair. “Wine 101: American Wine History Part I.” VinePair, 6 Jan. 2022, vinepair.com/articles/wine-101-american-wine-history-i/.

[2] Malin, words: Joshua. “The 8,000 Year History of Wine Transport and Storage.” VinePair, 23 Mar. 2014, vinepair.com/wine-blog/history-wine-transport-8000-years/.

[3] Burgess, words: Laura. “Chianti – It’s More than a Cheap Red Wine in a Straw Basket.” VinePair, 1 June 2015, vinepair.com/wine-blog/chianti-its-more-than-a-cheap-red-wine-in-a-straw-basket/.

[4] Nigro, Dana. “U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Wine-Shipping Bans | Wine Spectator.” Wine Spectator, Wine Spectator, 16 May 2005, www.winespectator.com/articles/us-supreme-court-overturns-wine-shipping-bans-2543.

[5] Butera, Isabelle. “Wine at the Grocer, No Happy Hour, Drive-thru Daiquiris: A Guide to US Alcohol Laws.” USA TODAY, 30 June 2023, www.usatoday.com/story/money/2023/06/25/alcohol-laws-by-state-us/70344352007/.

[6] “Everything You Need to Know about Bulk Wine Transport.” International Bulk Wine & Spirits Show San Francisco, 29 Aug. 2019, ibwsshow.com/en/blog/insights-64/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bulk-wine-transport-265.htm.

[7] Malin, words: Joshua. “The 8,000 Year History of Wine Transport and Storage.” VinePair, 23 Mar. 2014, vinepair.com/wine-blog/history-wine-transport-8000-years/.

[8] October 25, Mike Pomranz Updated, and 2017. “Only 14 States Legally Allow Buyers to Have Wine Shipped from Retailers in Other States.” Food & Wine, 9 Aug. 2023, www.foodandwine.com/wine/shipping-wine-between-states-legal.

[9] Andrews, Betsy. “The Path to Zero-Emission Wine Shipping.” SevenFifty Daily, 10 Aug. 2023, daily.sevenfifty.com/the-path-to-zero-emission-wine-shipping/.

[10] Staff, words: VinePair. “Wine 101: American Wine History Part I.” VinePair, 6 Jan. 2022, vinepair.com/articles/wine-101-american-wine-history-i/.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: November 27, 2023Last Updated: November 27, 2023

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