Wine shipping bill is all bottled up

Prospects for an end to state ban appear to be dim

March 06, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

As it turns out, 2010 probably won't be the vintage year for Marylanders who want to buy wine over the Internet or receive deliveries from Napa Valley.

The head of a key Annapolis committee said Friday that it "will be a challenge" for his panel to endorse an end to a ban on direct wine shipments. Wine-lovers and state wineries have been pushing to overturn the prohibition for years but have been blocked by the state's powerful liquor lobby and lawmakers sympathetic to the industry.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and head of the House Economic Matters Committee, sounded skeptical about the measure's prospects after hearing from both sides Friday. He becomes the second committee chairman to offer a bleak assessment of the proposal: Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat whose health committee is considering the legislation, opposes lifting the ban.

After incurring the wrath of consumers and businesses for standing in the way of mail shipments, Conway is backing another measure that would allow local vineyards to expand their tastings and food service, as well as sell bottles at farmers' markets. The Maryland Winery Modernization Act would also allow the state's 41 licensed wineries to share resources such as bottling and processing.

Conway is the lead sponsor of the measure, which has the backing of 43 of 47 senators. She has described the proposal as a "compromise."

Maryland is one of 13 states that ban direct shipping of wine, limiting residents' access to varieties that local stores don't stock or, some argue, prompting some residents to break the law by having cases shipped to other states and transporting them home or just having unmarked packages of wine delivered to their doors.

The movement to legalize wine shipping has grown to more than 20,000 supporters, according to Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, an advocacy organization. Dozens of social media and e-mail groups have sprung up. A majority of senators on Conway's committee have endorsed the measure.

Leaders of the movement have intensely lobbied lawmakers - some say too intensely.

Del. Donna Stifler, a Harford County Republican, complained Friday that Adam Borden, until this week the director of the Maryland wine laws group, had called her mother to enlist the delegate's support. Conway also criticized a fiery exchange last month with Borden, calling him offensive. He resigned Friday, saying he didn't want his style to hurt the cause.

But supporters haven't convinced Conway or, it appears, a majority of the House economic committee.

"There's a lot of fear," said Paul Hoffstein, an Annapolis resident and new president of the Maryland wine laws group. "There's just no other explanation."

The liquor lobby says it opposes direct shipping because of danger that underage drinkers will purchase wine through the Internet and because Maryland liquor stores could lose money.

Others say the change could disrupt a carefully crafted Prohibition-era system that balances regulation of beer, wine and distilled spirits along with the functions of wholesalers, distributors and retailers.

The liquor lobby that protects the system is one of the top campaign contributors, giving to more than 80 percent of the 188 General Assembly members - all of whom are up for election this fall.

Wine advocates are concerned about the influence. The liquor lobby, Borden said at a news conference announcing his resignation, has a "stranglehold" on the Assembly.

Thomas Minkin, chairman of the Baltimore County Liquor Board, said the advocates have wrongly dismissed legitimate concerns over the bill.

If just one teen is able to buy and consume wine over the Internet, and then goes out and kills someone, Minkin said, how could lawmakers live with themselves?

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the beverage distributors, says the bill is written so broadly that out-of-state liquor stores - not just wineries - would be able to ship to Maryland consumers, "cannibalizing" local liquor stores.

Advocates point to the fact that 37 states have direct shipping, and no studies have shown increases in teenage drinking or harm to local liquor stores.

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