Wine lovers are planning an all-out lobbying offensive in the General Assembly next year for passage of a law that would allow merchants and wineries to ship directly to Maryland consumers.
The issue has fermented for years in the legislature where a bill has been bottled up in committee, but wine producers and connoisseurs see an opportunity in the next session that begins in January. They say they have more funding and support, and they hope to draw votes by casting the bill as a pro-consumer issue that lawmakers can promote to voters before the 2010 election.
"We've got a lot of things going in our favor, and this issue will finally have its day," said Adam Borden, executive director of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, an organization whose membership has grown tenfold with increased outreach over the past year.
Maryland law sets up a three-tier regulatory system that requires producers to sell to wholesalers, who distribute cases of wine to retail stores. Opponents of direct-to-consumer sales say those transactions would undermine that system and make it easier for minors to obtain alcohol.
The issue has sparked a national movement and a "Free the Grapes" grass-roots coalition seeking to remove restrictions on wine shipping. At least 35 states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia have passed legislation authorizing direct shipment of wine to consumers.
In Maryland, the bill didn't get out of House and Senate committees in 2008. But next year, proponents are coming back with a more well-funded, well-heeled plan.
They have been holding fundraisers, including a $250-per-person wine tasting in Chevy Chase next month featuring Chateau Margaux and Beychevelle wines, and they have hired a political affairs coordinator for the session. They also are getting an assist from the Wine Institute, a trade group of California wineries that intends to hire a lobbyist in Maryland.
And proponents are buoyed by the support of Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the alcoholic beverages subcommittee of the House Economic Matters Committee and plans to sponsor the bill next year. She said passage is "inevitable" and that constituents are frustrated they can't send a gift basket that includes a bottle of wine or ship home a favorite wine they tasted in California's Napa Valley.
Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the economic panel, said he knows that some lawmakers are interested in seeing the wine shipping issue resolved but cautioned that his committee also has other pressing problems to confront next session, including possible legislation concerning home foreclosures, the energy markets and the unemployment trust fund.
And opposition persists. The Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland has retained Bruce C. Bereano, one of the highest-paid lobbyists in Annapolis. Bereano said that direct sales could hurt wholesalers and retailers in the state and that the current system ensures face-to-face transactions with adults whose ages can be verified.
Maryland law does allow consumers to arrange for a wine shipment to be picked up at a retailer, but Borden said the process is cumbersome and rarely used. He also noted that the new law would require signatures of someone 21 years or older for deliveries.