Senate OKs bill on wine imports

Measure would help Md. consumers obtain hard-to-get varieties

March 15, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state Senate gave cork-sniffing consumers a break yesterday as it passed legislation allowing them to order hard-to-find wines from out-of-state wineries and have them shipped into Maryland legally.

The unanimous vote culminates a three-year effort by Sen. Andrew P. Harris to find a way to let Maryland wine enthusiasts lay their hands on such rarities as Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon without running afoul of the state's restrictive liquor importation laws.

The measure now goes to the House of Delegates, where a companion bill has been awaiting committee action. Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said he expects the panel to approve an identical bill sponsored by Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, today.

The Senate bill reflects a compromise between consumers, Maryland wineries and liquor distributors.

Unlike the original bill that Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, introduced two years ago, it would not permit direct shipments of wine to consumers. Instead, it provides for shipments to be routed through the existing three-tier distribution system of producers, wholesalers and retailers.

"That's what was necessary to get everyone on board," Harris said. "The retailers like it because it gets the wine buyer in the store to pick up the shipment," he said.

Harris had seen earlier versions of the bill fail to pass the last two years because of opposition from liquor retailers and wholesalers and the state Comptroller's Office, which collects the taxes on alcohol sold in the state. After last year's session, industry groups and consumers hammered out a compromise that the comptroller could accept as well.

Under the legislation, consumers would be able to order wine from wineries that do not have Maryland distributors so long as the wineries purchase a $10 permit from the comptroller.

The wines would be shipped to a Maryland wholesaler, who would send it to a retailer, who would hold it until the consumer came by to pick it up.

Distributors would be allowed to charge a fee at each stage. Wholesalers would collect $2 for a single bottle or $4 per shipment and retailers would collect $5 per bottle or $10 per shipment. Thus, the extra charge levied on an order of wine shipped by an out-of-state winery would come to $14.

Kevin Atticks, a Timonium wine writer and collector who has supported Harris' legislation each year, said it was "exciting" that the bill finally passed the Senate.

Atticks said the bill would probably not satisfy "purists who don't want to be regulated," but he defended the compromise.

"Is it the ideal solution? Probably not. Probably the ideal solution was to have it shipped directly to your home," he said. "The powers that be didn't seem to be ready to have wineries have open access to our market."

Joseph A. Schwartz III, the lobbyist who negotiated the compromise on behalf of the liquor industry, said the legislation accommodates people who want to order wines from small out-of-state wineries while retaining protections against sales to minors.

Schwartz said the key to the bill's success would be whether out-of-state wineries are willing to pay the $10 permit fee.

Maryland wineries also are pleased by the bill's passage, said Boordy Vineyards owner Rob Deford.

Deford said Maryland wineries hope the legislation will help them gain entry for their products into states that allow shipments from states with reciprocal agreements. If it isn't enough, he said, the wineries will seek changes in the future.

"We believe this is the right first step," Deford said.

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