Florida lawmakers are once again pushing to repeal the state’s cap on wine bottle sizes.
In Florida, selling wine in a bottle larger than one gallon is a second-degree misdemeanor, putting it in the same class as more severe-sounding crimes such as simple assault, prostitution, or petit theft.
Like those offenses, a violation could result in a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
Measures filed for the 2022 Legislative Session (HB 6031/SB 384) would strike the size limit from the books, putting Florida among a handful of states that allow selling wine in bottles of biblical proportions.
A standard wine bottle is 750 milliliters, roughly a fifth of a gallon. A typical boxed wine is three liters, or about four-fifths of a gallon.
But some wineries package the 15-liter Nebuchadnezzar, named for the Old Testament-era Babylonian emperor. There are larger bottle tiers, such as the 50-liter Sovereign, but they are the bacchanal equivalent of a novelty check, often requiring a dolly to move and a harness or spigot to pour.
While state law blocks retailers from selling the larger bottles, there is no penalty for the buyer and it only takes a few clicks for Floridians who are so inclined to order Nebuchadnezzars (or Balthazars, Salmanazars and Melchiors) online.
Proponents argue the gap makes moot a law that was arcane to start.
Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Lighthouse Point Republican, is the prime sponsor in the House. He carried an identical bill in the 2021 Legislative Session that cleared the chamber in a 112-3 vote but ultimately died in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, is repeating as the Senate sponsor.
The 2021 bills weren’t novel. The measure has sailed through the House three years in a row only to die in the Senate. And that trend is a reversal from years prior, when the upper chamber was often the more amenable of the two.
Fueling the losing streak is fierce opposition from alcohol distributors such as Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, which has a fleet of lobbyists representing it in the Legislature.
The industry is typically opposed to changes in beverage law. In the early years of the craft beer boom, distributors fought against the legalization of 64-ounce growlers. The fight was similarly reflective of the gaps in Florida’s alcohol laws — customers could walk into an independent brewery and get quart or gallon growlers, but a half-gallon was off-limits.
Distributors argued that legalizing a half-gallon container was a “slippery slope” that could lead to “makeshift” or “faux” breweries set up to skirt Florida’s three-tier alcohol distribution system, which puts a barrier between alcohol producers, distributors and retailers.
Distributors lost that battle in 2015, but arguably won the war since the provision was included in a broader bill regulating craft breweries.
However, the wine bottle size repeal’s inclusion in broader alcohol regulation bills has also proven to be an Achilles heel. Five years ago, Brandes tacked the change onto an alcohol advertising bill that, like the 2021 bill, passed in one chamber but flatlined in the other.
LaMarca and Brandes aim to avoid a similar pitfall in the 2022 Legislative Session by keeping it simple. Both bills are only two lines long — one line repeals the statute setting the one-gallon limit and the other sets a July 1 effective date.
It’s possible that removing the bottle size limit could have an economic impact, but the extent is speculative.
Extra-large bottles carry a substantial premium. A Nebuchadnezzar often costs about 50% more than the same volume of wine purchased as 20 standard bottles. Since lower-end wines aren’t bottled at that size, the buy-in is around $1,000, all of which would be subject to sales tax.
Additionally, Florida taxes alcohol distributors at the wholesale level. For wine, the tax ranges from $2.25 a gallon for run-of-the-mill reds, whites and rosés to $3.50 per gallon for bubbly and wines with higher alcohol content. And wine is big business — Floridians bought more than 85 million gallons last fiscal year, accounting for a significant portion of the $316 million collected via the beverage tax in 2020-21.
Whether it passes or not, this is the last attempt from Brandes, who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.
“It’s my last year, it’s my last shot,” Brandes told Florida Politics last week. “I’m going to burn the place down over the wine bottle bill … and the state bird.”
Brandes has also filed legislation (SB 324) to rescind the mockingbird’s designation as Florida’s bird.
LaMarca’s bill has been referred to the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee and Commerce Committee. Brandes’ bill has not received any committee assignments.