So you’re a small winery about to launch your website, and you’re hoping that online sales will benefit both your brand and your bottom line. As you prepare to venture into the peril-ridden realm of the internet, you wonder: how can I be sure that minors don’t buy my wine online?

The short answer is: You can never be sure, because no matter how thorough and sophisticated a system you devise to verify age, teenage ingenuity will inevitably find a way to circumvent it.

Nevertheless, you do have certain minimum obligations with respect to age verification. At present, there is no “law,” as such, regarding age verification on winery websites, but the Federal Trade Commission and various alcoholic beverage industry groups have issued guidelines and recommendations regarding how alcohol manufacturers should guard against the exposure of minors to their marketing.  The best practice for manufacturers is thus to adhere to their industries’ codes of conduct. The Wine Institute’s Code, adopted in June 2011, provides as follows regarding age verification:

“A member should employ an age affirmation mechanism on the homepage that restricts access only to viewers who affirm their legal drinking age before access to any area of the site. Any linkage to a member website page that bypasses its home page should include an age affirmation mechanism.

Member websites should employ a third party age verification mechanism that will verify the legal drinking age of online purchasers of wine at the point of purchase.”

To accomplish the first objective, wineries use language of their choosing, typically coupled with an “enter” button or a click-box.  To accomplish the second objective, wineries must require each purchaser to provide his/her date of birth and then use a third-party age verification system to confirm (in theory, at least) that the purchaser is an adult.

Alcoholic beverage manufacturers have so far resisted stricter advertising regulation from the government by adhering to these best practices.  Earlier this year, however, the FTC requested data from several major alcoholic beverage manufacturers regarding their digital advertising practices, and these practices are presently under review.  New and more formal regulation may be in store.  Watch this space.


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