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Ex-NFL star Bledsoe seeks change in Mass. wine law

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Entertainment,Food and Drink

BOSTON (AP) — Former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, now a winemaker, returned to Massachusetts on Thursday to urge legislators to lift a ban on the direct shipment of wine to consumers.

Bledsoe said the prohibition prevents him from shipping products from his Doubleback winery in Walla Walla, Wash., to most Massachusetts residents, including some former fans and teammates from when he played for the New England Patriots.

"We have a ton of fans out here who want to try the wine, who want to get a hold of it," Bledsoe said after meeting with lawmakers at the Statehouse. "I want to sell it to them and there's really no reason why that shouldn't happen."

Massachusetts is one of 11 states that ban or sharply limit direct wine shipments, according to the group Free the Grapes, which advocates for wine producers and consumers.

A bill has been filed that would allow out-of-state producers and distributors to send wine to Massachusetts customers if they obtain a shipping license from the state. Wineries would be required to pay state sales tax on all shipments, including those ordered online.

The bill is opposed by a group that represents liquor outlets in the state.

"It's not meeting an unmet need," said Roger Donoghue, legal counsel for the Massachusetts Package Store Association. "People have ample access to the get the wines and other products they want from the package stores."

But passer-turned-vintner Bledsoe and other winemakers say that doesn't ring true, especially in the case of high-end wines from smaller vineyards that would not normally be available in neighborhood stores. Bledsoe said his wine is sold in a handful of restaurants and wine shops in Massachusetts.

State Rep. Ted Speliotis, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill with House Republican Leader Brad Jones, said his interest in the issue piqued when he heard Tom Brady, who replaced Bledsoe as the Patriots quarterback in 2001, complain on a sports talk show that he wanted to buy some wine from his former teammate but couldn't get it shipped to his Boston home.

Bledsoe recalled the incident.

"Tom actually bought the wine and he shipped it to his dad's house, but I think his dad drank all the wine before he got home to California," Bledsoe joked on Thursday.

Massachusetts passed a law in 2006 that allowed small wineries — those producing less than 30,000 gallons per year that did not have a wholesale contract in the state — to ship wine directly to consumers. A federal judge struck down the law in 2009 as an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause and lawmakers have taken no action in the intervening years to resolve the issue.

Bledsoe, who quarterbacked the Patriots from 1993-2001 and is a member of the team's Hall of Fame, said he hoped his presence would "make some noise" to get the bill moving.

Direct shipments could hurt some package stores and be a public safety risk, Donoghue said, because it could be easier for people under 21 to buy online than at liquor stores where they must prove they are of legal age.

Jones said there would be safeguards against shipments to minors and he doubted "mom and pop" liquor stores would be hurt.

"The practice right now is unconstitutional and unfair to consumers," he said.

Free the Grapes, based in California's Napa Valley, says Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Utah also ban all or most direct shipping.

Bledsoe retired from the NFL after later playing for the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys. He started the winery in 2007.

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