Wine to go? Up to Ehrlich

On governor's desk are bills on takeout of unfinished bottle

General Assembly

April 13, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Elliana Brobato eats out three or four times a week, sometimes with her boyfriend, sometimes with her friends, but almost always with a nice bottle of wine.

The only thing that makes her pause during a typical night of exuberant gastronomy is whether to order a second bottle.

"If there's four of us and we order a bottle of wine, we finish it," said the 26-year-old Canton resident, an art director. "If you order a second bottle, you feel like you have to finish it. It's expensive. But you can't be tipsy going home. I'm always telling my friends, `You'll go to Central Booking!' But if I'm paying a huge mark-up for wine at a restaurant, I don't see why I can't take the rest of the bottle home."

Apparently, neither do lawmakers. In a legislative session filled with heavy-duty issues such as soaring BGE bills and failing city schools, the General Assembly managed to find time for this less weighty dining dilemma: Both houses passed bills this week that would allow diners to take those partially drunk bottles of fermented grapes to-go.

The bills are awaiting the signature of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to become law.

"The governor has not yet taken a position on that bill," spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday. "It's one of about 800 bills that have reached his desk, and the governor will be giving careful consideration to [it] in the coming weeks."

Current open-container alcohol laws prohibit diners from taking an unfinished bottle home, but doggy-bagging wine is probably not tops on the governor's agenda right now, considering that unfinished business of skyrocketing electricity bills. Restaurateurs are crossing their fingers and corkscrews.

"I think it's a good idea," said Ed Scherer, owner of popular Helen's Garden Restaurant in Canton Square. "When we tell customers they can't take wine with them, they get very angry. They don't believe there's really a law.

"People aren't drinking wine to get drunk. They're drinking it for health benefits or because they enjoy it with a meal. If they spend money on a bottle, they might feel compelled to drink it all and drink more than they ordinarily would."

The possibility of preventing drunken driving has won support for so-called wine re-corking legislation in many states, according to Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat who co-sponsored the Senate bill.

Lawlah said she and another of the bill's eight sponsors, Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat, "have both been very vigilant on drunk driving over the years."

"The idea behind this is that you see people who will order bottles and then sit and drink the whole bottle because you can't take the rest of it out," she said. "We really want to cut down on the number of people drinking too much and then driving, and if you think about this one, it will make a lot of sense.

"We've got a lot of support for it from groups against drunk driving," Lawlah said.

In fact, Maryland would merely be following in the footsteps of 34 states that, as of last month, already have similar wine-to-go laws on the books, according to the National Restaurant Association.

While some states, such as Wyoming, simply allow patrons to take their unfinished wine home; others, such as Massachusetts, require restaurants to securely re-cork the bottle and place it in a one-time-use, tamper-proof transparent bag.

To thwart critics who fear that taking home open bottles of wine would encourage drunken driving, New York's law goes a step further by requiring restaurants to place the unfinished bottle in a plastic bag to be stapled and then covered in clear tape; glued with a pre-glued flap; or sealed with tape that forms a chemical bond with the plastic, according to the Web site of the New York Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

While Maryland's measures don't go quite that far, they do adhere to current laws by requiring diners to stash corked bottles in the trunk or locked glove compartment of a car to prevent easy access by drivers or passengers.

"I think you end up with more responsible behavior from this," said Tony Foreman, a restaurateur and husband of Cindy Wolf. They own the Charleston Group of restaurants in Baltimore, all of which boast impressive wine lists.

Pazo offers 100 bottles. Petit Louis Bistro stocks 200 bottles and their signature restaurant, Charleston, keeps more than 600 bottles on site ranging in price from $29 to $2,300 each.

At such prices, a bottle of wine isn't just an aperitif, it's an investment.

"Some of our wines are pretty darn rare," Foreman said. "People don't want to drop a big piece of money on something you cannot finish. If this passes, I do expect a little bit of pressure to ease off of people while they dine.

"The biggest effect this might have is whether people ordering a second bottle will have to worry about maybe not finishing it. We're very careful about how much our diners drink. The last thing we need is for someone to have a bad experience after leaving one of my places."

Besides, long-time dining aficionados say, why would a corked bottle of wine encourage boozing in a car when you can enjoy it in comfort at a cozy restaurant table or at home?

"This is more of offering a convenience for guests," said Lars Rusins, founder of Baltimore Foodies, a dining group. "Will it change my dining habits at the restaurant? Will it make me drink more? No. It will make me more relaxed at a restaurant. I know if we're through dinner, we've had that bottle of wine, and we want to have that second, we'd order it knowing that we don't have to finish it.

"There's no pressure to finish it. ... not that it matters since I'm a vodka drinker anyway."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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