Wine that travels

April 14, 2006

Aprediction for the dining scene this summer and beyond: Doggy bags shaped like bottles will become fashionable in Maryland. That's assuming, of course, that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. decides to sign into law a bill making it legal for a restaurant patron to take home an unfinished bottle of wine. The proposal is pretty straightforward - the diner has to cap or cork the bottle (duh, as a pesky maitre d' might say) and is expected to keep it away from passengers (the glove box and trunk are the preferred places to stash).

This seems reasonable, and the governor ought to endorse it. Rare is the case of drunken driving made possible by the last dregs from a Chateauneuf du Pape. The chief beneficiaries of this law are likely the restaurants whose wait staff will be able to encourage customers to splurge on an expensive bottle knowing that they won't have to drain it at the table. The last words diners hear from waiters may soon be, "Would monsieur or madame care for a disposable tray?"

State legislators did well by local wine producers, too. They approved a bill to create a limited wholesaler's license that will allow small wineries to sell and deliver wine directly to restaurants and other retailers. This was crucial legislation for the state's winemakers. A recent decision by the comptroller's office found that Maryland's existing law allowing these sales was no longer considered constitutional.

The problem was that Maryland's old law granted Maryland wineries the right to supply retailers but no equivalent license was available to out-of-state wineries. The new law grants such license to all wineries producing 27,500 gallons or less per year. That covers most Maryland winemakers but bans the large producers from states such as California and Washington. This was an artful compromise with just a hint of protectionism - in all, a robust year for wineries.

But what about consumers? Here's where the folks in Annapolis embraced temperance. Once again, legislators refused to allow direct wine sales to consumers. What's wrong with allowing the connoisseur to buy a bottle over the Internet? It's not because of potential sales to minors or uncollected taxes (other states have found ways to avoid both pitfalls). The real obstacle is opposition from Maryland's wholesalers and retailers who benefit (albeit marginally) from this provision in the state's byzantine liquor laws. In vino veritas: Wine lovers can't hold a corkscrew to such well-financed lobbying clout.

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