Md. import curbs cause wine lovers' ferment

Licenses proposed to allow shipments for personal use

Schaefer opposes change

March 06, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Towson wine enthusiast Kevin Atticks loves the cabernet sauvignon from Plum Creek Vineyards in Colorado. He's a big fan of the chardonnays from Markko Vineyards in Ohio. And he adores the chambourcin from Marimac Vineyards in New Jersey.

But importing any of these legal products is forbidden by Maryland's highly restrictive and widely flouted wine-import laws.

None of these tiny wineries has a Maryland distributor, and state law makes shipping their wines into the state a felony punishable by two years in jail. Atticks can drive to the wineries and buy their wares, but if he brings more than one bottle at a time into Maryland, he will have committed a misdemeanor.

Atticks, an expert in the wines of the Eastern United States, has joined with other Maryland consumers to seek a change in state law. Using the slogan "Free the Grapes," they are asking the General Assembly to approve a bill that would create a personal-consumption license to import wines from other states.

At a House hearing yesterday, Atticks displayed a bottle of Marimac chambourcin, telling delegates he had to drive to New Jersey to purchase it.

"I'd love to pay Maryland taxes for this," he told the Economic Matters Committee.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer isn't eager to collect those taxes. He and the powerful liquor lobby - both fiercely protective of the "three-tier system" that has been in effect since Prohibition - oppose the bill.

Under the three-tier system, an alcoholic beverage must pass through the producer, the wholesaler and the retailer, each of which must remain separate. Its proponents say the system allows liquor to be distributed in an orderly and equitable way, preventing sales to minors and ensuring that taxes are collected. Opponents say the system is mostly designed to ensure that each industry sector gets its cut.

Greg Baird, president of Churchill Distributors in Baltimore, said the bill could imperil the jobs of his 400 employees.

"Those livelihoods depend on the three-tier system," he said.

Jay Schwartz, lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, urged senators not to change the system just to permit his "yuppie neighbors" to buy the wines of their choice.

"Sometimes they can't get everything they want, and that's just the way it is," Schwartz said.

Wine consumers have found an advocate in Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who says he is more interested in free trade than in wine.

Harris said Maryland distributors handle a small fraction of the wines available on the world market.

"You can't have 50,000 products in the Information Age and not give Maryland consumers the opportunity to purchase these products," he said.

Harris sponsored a similar bill last year, winning approval in the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee but losing on the Senate floor.

This year, he has come back with a bill revised to address some of the concerns raised last year, especially fears that minors will use the system to illegally purchase wine. He has picked up a powerful co-sponsor in Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The bill originally would have allowed direct shipment of up to a case a month to the consumer's residence after payment of a $100 license fee in lieu of taxes. Proponents have offered to amend it so that consumers would pay $25 annually for the right to have wine shipped to a nearby retailer, who would collect taxes and a handling fee.

Harris said 22 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing direct shipments of wine from other states, usually with a reciprocity requirement protecting those states' wineries. (One dodge used by Maryland wine enthusiasts is to have direct wine shipments sent to an office or friend's home in Washington.)

The bill received a sympathetic hearing in the House yesterday and in the Senate on Friday.

Lawmakers heard pleas from several consumers, including Candace DeGarmo of Timonium, who said she was "shocked" five years ago when she moved from Chicago and found she couldn't have her favorite Bergerac wines from France shipped to her.

"It's available on the Internet. They're available, but we can't get them," DeGarmo said.

Maryland wineries did not send a representative to testify on the proposed legislation. Industry sources said most Maryland wineries would benefit from being able to ship to other states under reciprocity agreements but didn't testify for fear of angering Schaefer.

Charles Ehart, director of the comptroller's alcohol and tobacco tax division, testified against the bill, pointing out a program in which the Internet company will arrange for delivery of hard-to-find wines through the existing distribution system.

Several consumers told senators they had been unable to find favorite wines through that Internet site. A test of a half-dozen small-production wineries listed in a nationally distributed catalog found none of them available on yesterday.

Ehart said is in its infancy. He said people who can't find certain wines through the service can ask to try to find the wines.

And if a consumer can't find a much-desired wine through that route?

"It's not a perfect world," Ehart said.

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