Time to uncork change in Maryland liquor laws

VINTAGE POINT

Update: The laws date from the '30s and need to be revised to deal with today's reality.

May 02, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

You may believe you are a responsible citizen with a healthy appreciation of wine, a beverage of health and pleasure.

But Maryland's liquor laws are based upon the presumption that you are an irresponsible drunk who would end up in the gutter if price competition were to make alcoholic beverages too affordable.

That's not exactly the way Charles W. Ehart, administrator of the Maryland Comptroller's Office's alcohol-tax unit, put it when he explained the state's wine-distribution system to me last week.

"The policy of the state is to limit economic competition to foster temperance and promote the general welfare," he said.

Now nobody knows the state liquor law better than Ehart, who has been collecting the taxes on potent beverages for decades. He's a decent, honest bureaucrat who has served the state well. Unfortunately, he's one of the leading defenders of Maryland's creaky three-tier liquor-distribution system.

Ehart says the status quo is working just fine and that there is no reason for a fundamental re-examination of a system that has been in place since the 1930s.

Maybe he's right where hard liquor and beer are concerned. I don't presume to have expertise in those areas. But he's wrong about wine.

Maryland's three-tier system ensures that almost all alcoholic beverages -- with a narrow exception for sales at the state's wineries -- must pass from producer to wholesaler to retailer. Cutting out the middleman is a no-no.

State law also imposes absurdly strict limits on the amount of wine or other alcoholic beverages a person can bring in from another state. Bring in more than one bottle after visiting a Washington wine shop or a Virginia winery, and you're a dangerous criminal.

In the 1930s, when these laws were adopted, the world was a far different place as far as wine was concerned.

At that time, the United States was generally not a wine-producing or wine-consuming nation.

Whiskey and beer were the nation's beverages of choice. The Napa Valley was ranching country. If you went into a restaurant and asked for a chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, the waiter would have looked at you as if you were from another planet.

Maryland's laws governing wine today are basically the same as they were then.

I was reminded of this absurdity earlier this year while watching a Maryland Senate committee consider a modest bill that would have allowed wine enthusiasts to order wines from outside the state and have them shipped to them.

More than 20 other states have such laws so that consumers can order from wineries, catalogs or Internet merchants wines they can't find in their own states.

The bill ran into fierce opposition from the Iron Triangle that defends the three-tier system -- the comptroller's office and the powerful lobbies for the liquor wholesalers and retailers.

Opponents raised the fear that children would be placing orders for wine to get around the minimum drinking age. Never mind that the idea of teen-agers having the foresight to have cases of wine shipped to their homes under the noses of their parents is laughable.

Proponents of change offered a compromise under which consumers could have wines shipped to a retailer, who would then collect the taxes and charge a fee for accepting delivery of the wine. The opponents wouldn't budge, and the bill never got out of committee. Senators who killed the bill said they were defending the integrity of the three-tier system.

Horsefeathers. That system has no integrity.

What it does is protect wholesalers from competition. In the District of Columbia, retailers are permitted to directly import wines from producers -- giving their customers access to interesting wines at bargain prices. In Maryland, wholesalers can coast.

The system also protects your average corner liquor store, where the owners know zilch about wine and don't care to learn.

Their attitude was summed up by Jay Schwartz, lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, who dismissed the desire of his "yuppie neighbors" to buy the wines other than those his clients carry.

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

The irony is that capable wine merchants could thrive under a system that let them direct-import. Wise retailers would also be thrilled to receive customers' shipments of wines they can't get from Maryland wholesalers. Every time such a wine enthusiast walked in the door would be a golden selling opportunity.

One of the main reasons the system has survived is that it is a convenience for the tax man, who doesn't want to be bothered with devising a consumer-friendly way to operate. "With wholesalers, I got 30 of them. With retailers, I got 9,000 of them," Ehart said. He calls Maryland's system a model for the nation.

Isn't it time Maryland wine consumers demanded a new model that treats us with respect?

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