Conway rules out end to wine-shipment ban

Senator says direct sale to Marylanders poses underage-buying, tax problems

February 08, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Most Maryland lawmakers, a swath of Democrats and Republicans from across the state, want adults to be able to have bottles of wine shipped to their homes, something that's legal in 37 other states. When it was filed last week, a bill repealing the quarter-century-old direct-shipping ban included the signatures of 106 of the 188 state legislators.

"In a logical world, that kind of support would indicate that a bill is about to pass," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and proponent of what's affectionately known as the "Free the Grapes" campaign.

But the proposal, as in years past, "is not going anywhere," according to the leader of the Senate committee that determines its fate.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said she has too many concerns to bring the bill up for a vote, though six of the nine committee members are co-sponsors.

"Conceptually, it's a good thing," Conway said of the proposal. "There are a few things I'm hung up on, and I don't think those can all be resolved this year."

Her chief concern, she said, is that underage drinkers will tap the Internet for wine. There's no way, she said, to force delivery agencies, whether the U.S. Postal Service or a private carrier, to verify the age of the person accepting a package.

The other problem, she said, is that it is difficult for state officials to collect taxes from out-of-state entities - or penalize faraway violators.

Raskin said he has not heard "any convincing argument against the wine bill. It's working in other states. It can work here, too."

He argues that Marylanders are already having bottles of wine shipped to their homes illegally or to other areas, such as Virginia or Washington, where it is legal. Either way, Maryland doesn't get a cut of the taxes on those bottles.

Adam Borden, director of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, a lobbying group, said direct shipping would generate about $1.5 million per year in state and excise taxes.

Repealing the law would open Maryland wine cellars to cabernets and syrahs from boutique wineries such as Sonoma's Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate.

Most of their wines are shipped directly to residents, said Jim Morris, the vineyard's director of marketing. They do not sell to any of the state's wine distributors, but Morris said some Maryland customers have found a loophole: Those who work in the District of Columbia have the product shipped to their business addresses.

"We always ask, 'Do you have an address in D.C. or any other state?' " Morris said. "Maryland is a really difficult state to do business with."

Liquor lobbyists strongly oppose direct shipping of wine, saying it bypasses the state's carefully crafted network of government entities that regulate the sale of alcohol. Developed just after the end of Prohibition in 1933, state law requires alcohol to pass from producer to wholesaler to retailer before it reaches the consumer.

"What do you think the liquor boards are for?" Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, says of the bill.

The wine-shipping legislation would require manufacturers who import to be licensed, but Bereano says such a system would "not be a meaningful substitute" for liquor inspectors charged with the authority to shut down a business selling to underage customers.

Conway said she supports the existing regulatory system. Direct shipping, she said, "violates the integrity of it."

But some proponents of the direct-shipping bill question whether she is too personally tied to the system to be fair. Her husband, Vernon "Tim" Conway, is a city liquor inspector since 1995 who made $67,000 in his position last year, according to city records.

All 188 lawmakers and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, are up for election this fall, further imperiling the wine-shipping bill. According to a 2008 analysis by The Baltimore Sun, more than 80 percent of state legislators have received campaign contributions from the liquor lobby.

Conway said her concerns are shared by Senate leadership. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, has not traditionally supported the direct-shipping bill, either.

Still, Raskin said, he holds out hope that 2010 "will be our vintage for passing this bill."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.


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