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Taxes and the 3-Tier System (Why Wine Costs So Much!)

Written by Madeline Puckette

The wine you buy in America goes through a number of hands before it gets into yours. This system is called the 3-Tier System, and it’s starting to corrode.

What Is The Three-Tier System?

Wine, Beer, Spirits three-tier system of distribution

Each step on the 3-Tier System for alcohol distribution in America increases the final cost of a bottle of wine. This system is called the 3-Tier System, and it was created after prohibition as a way to control consumption in America.

Purposefully Inefficient

The 3-Tier System is purposefully inefficient; it has multiple steps between producer and imbiber. It was developed on the heels of the American Anti-Trust Act from the 1890s. The system was intentionally built to:

  1. Increase the minimum price of alcoholic drinks to control alcohol abuse.
  2. Decrease the potential political power of large producers who could create a monopoly in the market and limit consumer choice.

Despite the good intentions, the 3-Tier System has created some negative effects:

Bulk Wine Mark Up vs Quality Wine Mark Up

Mark-Ups Compound By Percentage

The price increases from distributors and retailers are by percentage, which means that the prices compound the higher they are. Since small producers generally have a much higher cost of goods, their wines are at a greater disadvantage coming in.

Retail Wine Prices vs. Restaurant Wine Prices

Unequal Pricing

Besides markups being higher on higher-priced wines, different types of establishments charge different rates for a bottle or a glass of wine.

Fortunately, The Internet is Disrupting the 3-Tier System

Buying wine online has blown up into a multi-billion dollar industry. While several states still do not allow direct shipping, the potential to have greater access to more wines and lower prices through direct shipping is taking some of the wind out of the archaic system.


Wine Flash Sale Sites

Flash wine sale sites can negotiate significantly lower retail prices with wineries to offer their large captive audience of potential buyers. The low prices offered on these sites are justified by the volume of sales. The result is greatly reduced prices of typically higher quality wines for consumers. 

Online Wine Marketplace

Online Wine Marketplaces

Sites like Wine Searcher and apps like Vivino help fill the “DTC” (direct-to-consumer) space, acting as the go-between the consumer and winery (or actual wine warehouse).

Amazon came into this space, too, with a wine marketplace that operates differently than a traditional retail site. Instead of maintaining a warehouse and shipping wine to customers, they offer wineries (and importers with retail licenses) the ability to offer wine through the site and then fulfill the order themselves.

Unfortunately, when Amazon purchased Whole Foods, they had to shut down Amazon Wine on December 31st, 2017.

Winery Direct and Importer Direct Wine

Winery Direct and Importer Direct

A more recent phenomenon has seen independent importers creating their own online merchant sites to sell directly to customers. For an importer to do this, they must set up several sub-licenses that pay taxes for every step of the three-tier process. Overall, the costs and margins are much lower and should be passed along to you. 

If you would like to see an example of this, check out


Written byMadeline Puckette

James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year. I co-founded Wine Folly to help people learn about wine. @WineFolly

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