This situation arises from the fact that the USA differs from every other country on the planet, in being a country created from a collection of states rather than a country divided into states. Everywhere else, the national government has all of the power, and it delegates some things to the states or provinces (if they exist), which in turn further delegate some things to local administrative areas. In the USA, on the other hand, the states retain most of the political power, except for those things they have delegated to the national government (pertaining principally to international relations), or which they have delegated to local administrative areas (ie. counties).
Pretty much the only way for the national government to regulate the states is by changing the U.S. Constitution (or, to be precise, by adding things to it); and they also have a lot of power over what happens with national taxes, too.
This creates the unusual situation of the United States being distinctly non-united on a number of topics. Some of these relate to alcohol, since alcohol laws are currently a state matter. For example, there is much current discussion about that fact that some states allow the sale of alcoholic beverages by retailers based in other states, and some do not — that is, inter-state shipping is prohibited by some states. Here, the European Union is much more united than the United States, because any retailer can send anything from anywhere in the EU to anywhere else in the EU, as this is a basic tenet of the original creation of the Union — there is free trade.
However, the USA once went much further than this, and decided nationally to ban the sale of all alcohol-containing products, except those intended for medical or sacramental purposes — this was done via the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Most Americans think that this situation was changed again in 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. However, this is not quite so, nationally. There are still prominent remnants of Prohibition throughout the country, with complex state-by-state differences in the status of alcohol availability.
Since this seems to surprise many Americans, it worthwhile to summarize the situation here.
When was Prohibition repealed?
Section 1 of the 21st Amendment (added to the U.S. Constitution in 1933) explicitly repealed the 18th Amendment. However, Section 2 banned the importation of alcohol into states and territories that have laws prohibiting the importation or consumption of alcohol. This means that each state was allowed, in practice, to decide for itself whether Prohibition should be repealed. Prohibition had been an admitted failure, in terms of addressing alcohol consumption, and so most states simply allowed alcohol sales as from 1933. However, the following states did not do so until later:
So, there are currently no states that completely ban the sale of alcohol (but there were when I was born!).
Alcoholic beverage control states
Since individual states retain the right to regulate alcohol as they see fit, there is what has been called "a dazzling array of confusing alcohol control laws under seemingly arbitrary regulatory agencies."
At the moment, there are 17 U.S. states that currently control the sale of alcoholic beverages to one extent or another. They are shown in the following map (from Wikipedia).
Green: State control of beer, wine, and spirits
Utah — state-run stores (aka State Liquor & Wine Stores) for sale of all alcohol over 4% ABVDark blue: State control of wine and spirits
Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores (aka Fine Wine & Good Spirits) control the sale of spirits, while wine sales licensees are limited based on county population sizesLight blue: State control of spirits
Alabama – liquor stores are state-run or on-premises establishments with a special off-premises licenseOrange: Other alcoholic beverage control states
Idaho – state monopoly over sales of beverages with >16% ABV
Iowa – spirits are sold to privately owned retailers by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division
Maine – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Michigan – state monopoly over wholesaling of distilled spirits
Mississippi – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Montana – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
New Hampshire – spirits sold in state-run liquor stores
North Carolina – state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission controls wholesale distribution and oversees local ABC boards, which own the liquor stores for sale of spirits
Ohio – state contracts with private businesses to sell spirituous liquor
Oregon – spirits sold in stores operated and managed by state appointed liquor agents
Vermont – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Virginia – Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control stores control sale of spirits
West Virginia – state monopoly over wholesaling of distilled spirits
Wyoming – state monopoly on wholesale importation
Maryland — by state law, Montgomery County operates under a control model.
Alcoholic beverage control counties
Alcohol regulation occurs even more commonly at the level of counties, which is what creates the "dazzling array" referred to above. There are currently at least 200 counties nationally that remain Dry, in that there is some ban or other on the sale of alcohol. Most of these are in the east and south-east, as shown in the following map (from Wikipedia).
Yellow: mixed (according to city or alcohol type).
This example from among the Yellow counties is from the American Association of Wine Economists' Facebook page:
As of 2013, there were eight completely dry towns in Massachusetts: Alford, Chilmark, Dunstable, Gosnold, Hawley, Montgomery, Mount Washington, and Westhampton. Plus, there are many partially dry (moist) towns. For instance, in Rockport, alcoholic beverages may only be served to patrons who are consuming a full meal.
Import of alcohol from out-of-state retailers
Some states currently ban alcohol import direct from from out-of-state retailers. This is the so-called Three Tier system, which was one of the practical outcomes of Section 2 of the 21st Amendment — states control alcohol by imposing a middle tier for alcohol movement, separating the customers from the source. That is, a local distributor must import the out-of-state alcohol, and pass it on to local retailers, who are the only legal suppliers to local customers.
At the moment, it seems that inter-state courier companies are delivering wine only to the following territories:
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2016:
Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah — specifically prohibit the direct shipment of alcoholic beverages to consumersThe remaining states allow direct wine shipments, to one extent or another. For example, Tennessee has laws requiring liquor store owners to be TN residents for two years, which is currently being challenged in court (Wine shipping gets its day in court).
Mississippi — does not have a statute that specifies that direct shipments are allowed
Rhode Island — allows intoxicating beverages to be shipped when purchased on-site
Delaware, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia — allow the direct shipment of beer and wine, as specified
Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, District of Columbia — allow direct shipment of all spirits, as specified.
Many states in the U.S.A. now allow alcohol import direct from U.S. wineries, although for most of these states this is only a recent phenomenon. For example, Kentucky is the most recent (2019) state to pass a bill to allow inter-state shipping (Kentucky opens doors to wineries).
Note: Pennsylvania (2005) and Massachusetts (2010) have had statutes ruled unconstitutional by state courts. Delaware has a statutory provision that requires orders to be processed and shipped through licensed wholesalers.
This is just like Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s. Even as late as the 1970s, alcohol could be served on Sundays only to travelers — that is, a public house (ie. a pub) in the countryside could serve alcohol but not one in a town or city. I lived on the outskirts of a big city, so my mates and I only had a short country drive to get to the nearest pub. Current licensing is much more lenient.