Every month, the plain brown cardboard box arrives at my office, right on schedule. It is delivered not by a uniformed guy from UPS or FedEx but by a courier wearing ordinary clothing and driving an unmarked vehicle.
There is no return address on the box; nothing indicating what is inside. I wait until I get home to open it, not wanting my co-workers to know what I'm having delivered.
I'm not sure what I'm doing is legal or not, but it certainly seems shady. Regardless, I'm made to feel like a criminal - and that's exactly what the state of Arizona wants.
The box doesn't contain a stash of illegal drugs from Colombia, a stack of porn from Amsterdam or any of the other things that you're not supposed to have delivered.
I'll confess. I'm getting wine from California. And in Arizona, that's bordering on an illegal activity.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Phoenix this month may change such nonsense.
It's hard to believe that in an age when I can go online or call an 800 number and order just about anything delivered to my door, I'm not allowed to order wine. I can buy books from Amazon.com or from a local bookstore. I can rent videos from any number of online Web sites or from the Blockbuster down the street.
But if I want to buy wine, there is no choice. I can buy it only at a local store.
There is a loophole: If I order wine from an Arizona winery, I can have it delivered. But if I want wine from any other state, delivery is out of the question - unless I am willing to jump through a lot of hoops and skirt the boundaries of the law.
To be fair, Arizona is far from unique. There are 24 states that limit or ban the shipment of wine to residents.
The Arizona law is ridiculously complex. Wine cannot be shipped directly to consumers. Instead it must first be shipped to a liquor wholesaler who then delivers it to a liquor retailer who then delivers it to a consumer. Of course, everyone who handles it along the way adds on a little extra charge for their trouble.
The obvious goal is to preserve the role and the income stream of liquor distributors, who have a strong political and lobbying presence.
An exception was made for Arizona wineries, which are allowed to ship directly to Arizona customers. But Arizona wineries get hurt another way, and this is where it gets complicated. The 26 states that allow direct-delivery are mad at the states, such as Arizona, that don't. So to punish us, states that allow wine delivery prohibit delivery of wine coming from states that have a delivery ban. So Arizona wineries cannot ship wine directly to consumers in the 26 states that allow direct delivery.
Mark Stornetta, director of business for Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, Calif., is a member of the Coalition for Free Trade which is working to get delivery laws in Arizona and other states overturned.
"We're not able to reach out to people who want to have our wines," Stornetta said, "and for a small winery, that is critical."
So how do I get my monthly shipment of wine from a California winery that I am especially fond of? I should probably plead the Fifth.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how it works. It just shows up. I don't think it goes through all the required hands, but I'm not sure. The nice people at the winery didn't really want to get into details, although they assured me that it was, for the most part, legit.
Two weeks ago, a Phoenix man and the owner of a small Virginia winery got fed up. John R. Norton, who lives in Phoenix and is a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wanted to buy wine from Willowcraft Farms Vineyards in Leesburg, Va. But Lewis Parker, owner of Willowcraft, told Norton the wine could not be shipped to Arizona.
The two teamed up with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice and sued the state of Arizona.
There is one thing that makes the suit unusual: Arizona is the last of the 24 states with direct-delivery bans to be sued for alleged violation of federal commerce laws.
Mark Brnovich, constitutional studies director for the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix, thinks the suit may be enough to get the Legislature to drop the delivery ban. "With the state's budget problems, I can't imagine them spending money to defend a lawsuit that they're probably going to lose and that harms Arizona taxpayers," Brnovich said.
The stated reason for the delivery ban is to maintain "orderly market conditions," Brnovich said - which he said is a euphemism for wholesale market protection.
Liquor distributors supporting the delivery prohibition also say it is needed to prevent teenagers from ordering liquor over the Internet - a fear that Brnovich calls "comical."
"Anybody who was a teenager or a 20-year-old college student knows they don't have the patience to get on the Internet and order a $30 bottle of Chardonnay and wait for it to be delivered," Brnovich said. "And if that's really a concern, why are in-state wineries allowed to deliver directly?"
Remember the North American Free Trade Agreement, which knocked down trade barriers among Mexico, Canada and the United States? What about an agreement that allows unrestricted trade among these supposedly united states, too?
--Mark Kimble's column appears on Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of "Arizona Illustrated" on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone: (520) 573-4662; fax: (520) 573-4569; e-mail: email@example.com.