Wining and dining, but with a hitch

Dinner: Plans by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. to donate a rare wine to a charitable affair ran into a roadblock: Maryland alcohol laws.

October 24, 2001|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. is organizing wine dinners in New York that will raise half a million dollars for families of food-service workers killed at the World Trade Center. But Maryland's alcohol laws prevented him from donating wine to a charitable dinner here last month.

Welcome to the latest skirmish between wine connoisseurs and the state of Maryland.

For a fund-raising dinner honoring Parker and Julia Child, Parker purchased four cases of 1999 Grand Veneur Chateau Neuf du Pape, a wine he describes as "extremely rare" and to which he has given a rating of 92 on a scale of 100.

He selected it for a "special occasion" -- Julia Child's last appearance in Baltimore before she closes her home in Cambridge, Mass., and moves to a retirement community in Southern California.

The wine is not available in Maryland, so he purchased it in Washington and left it to be picked up by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, the organization sponsoring the dinner.

But AIWF ran into a roadblock. Under Maryland law, no establishment with a license to serve alcohol can offer a wine that is not available from a Maryland distributor. And because no exception in the law fit this case, the wine could not be legally served at the dinner at the Harbor Court Hotel.

A substitute, available through Maryland distributors, was served instead of Parker's wine. The replacement cost the organization about $2,400, according to Diane Neas, chair of the local chapter.

Money raised at the dinner, $34,000, is going to the national AIWF, as well as the local chapter and its outreach activities.

Dr. Charles Ehart, director of the state's Alcohol & Tobacco Tax Division, says that when Neas contacted him in August about obtaining permission to serve Parker's wine, he replied immediately, suggesting that the group apply for a permit under an exception in the law, the National Family Beer and Wine Permit.

Ehart says this exception was crafted about five years ago when a convention of home winemakers was coming to Baltimore.

For that exception to apply, the menu would have to include at least one homemade wine. "I agreed to issue them that permit, providing that their parent group [the national AIWF office] applied and that at least some wine was homemade," Ehart says.

Neas says the group couldn't meet Ehart's condition because the dinner featured French food and wines as a tribute to Parker and Child, both of whom have been awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government in recognition of their contributions to French cuisine and culture.

Under those circumstances, Neas says, adding a homemade wine to a menu carefully planned by Child and Parker would have been inappropriate.

Stan Bliden, who owns Midway Liquors in Joppa and attended the AIWF dinner, notes that holding a license to sell or serve alcohol carries with it the "responsibility to honor the license" and that drinking alcohol "is a privilege, not a right." And as a wine seller, he doesn't think Maryland's tight regulation of wine sales is necessarily bad.

Even so, he says it was "ridiculous [Parker] couldn't donate the wine."

For his part, Parker says the state's inflexibility caught him by surprise and insists he would have happily paid any additional tax had there been a way to do that.

"Maryland is one of the worst states in the country to do wine business," Parker says. "It's anti-consumer, and as a taxpayer I'm furious."

Parker frequently donates wines to charity auctions in Maryland, for which Maryland law has an exception, and to charity dinners and wine auctions in other states.

But this was the first time he had donated wine to be served at a charity dinner in Maryland. He says he tried to find the wine in Maryland but couldn't, so he bought it in Washington.

"I just thought it would be no problem because it was for a charitable occasion," he says.

Maryland's wine laws have long been a sore spot with Parker, who grew up in Baltimore County, attended the University of Maryland and practiced law in Baltimore before devoting all of his time to writing about wine.

To taste the thousands of wines he rates in his bimonthly newsletter, The Wine Advocate, he had to hire lawyers to obtain an exception to Maryland's law prohibiting wineries from shipping wine directly to Maryland consumers.

Without that permit, granted Dec. 31, 1997, he says he would have to leave the state to stay in business.

Part of his quarrel with Maryland's wine laws has to do with the changing nature of wine production and consumption.

Many of the wines he rates highly come from wineries too small to be picked up by a major distributor, and so, under current law, they are unavailable in Maryland.

There are two wine cultures, Parker says. One is made up of the big industrial producers.

A second wine culture is the small, artisanal wineries that produce high-quality wines in limited quantities. These wines are usually more expensive -- and, Parker says, would bring in more tax revenue per bottle. But Maryland law makes shipping wine directly to consumers a felony.

"It's probably easier to buy a gun or get pornography through the mail than to get wine," Parker says.

"The state needs to collect taxes. I understand that. ... But I cannot see the benefit to the state to have these inflexible regulations. It's Neanderthal, and it makes the state of Maryland look stupid, ... like we don't understand modern commerce."

Parker argues that the inflexibility of the current system hurts the state's bottom line, because people who love fine wine are happy to pay taxes on it.

"The state needs some control over alcohol," he says. "But without giving up control they could actually produce some revenue from this."

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