The bottling up of wine

Our view: Pro-consumer direct shipment law still faces a rocky road in Annapolis as the liquor lobby protects its interests

March 07, 2011

In the State House, it is said there are 1,000 ways to kill a bill but only one way to pass it. The point is that legislation, no matter how sensible, always faces an uphill climb while there are innumerable ways to weaken, misdirect or just plain bottle up a proposal.

The truth of this adage can be seen in the latest gyrations in the effort to allow Marylanders to purchase wine by direct shipment to their homes. Most states allow this practice already, and a recent report from the comptroller's office showed how the usual objections — that it would facilitate underage drinking or hamper tax collections — were red herrings.

But never underestimate the clout of monopolist alcohol distributors and others in the industry who don't want a bottle sold in this state on which they don't turn a profit. So they are asking lawmakers to rewrite the wine shipping bill to state that a customer can only buy wine by direct shipment that is not already available in Maryland.

That may sound tempting to legislators who don't wish to see their local mom-and-pop liquor stores harmed by direct shipment. But it's really just another red herring, and a particularly fishy one at that. Keeping track of what wines are available is not so easy, and it's patently unfair to expect a person in Western Maryland to travel to Baltimore (or farther) to get that elusive bottle.

The notion that local liquor stores would be hurt by direct shipment is absurd. Even in states with the most generous direct shipment laws, it represents a tiny fraction of transactions, as the practice is more about wine lovers buying rare and unusual vintages than purchasing what's readily available on store shelves.

Meanwhile, Maryland's own wine producers would be the first people hurt by the exclusion since their products are inevitably available from retailers around the state. That represents actual economic harm, not the opponents' fictional variety.

This isn't the only attempt to water down the bill. Others are trying to limit direct shipment to wineries and not allow retailers in on the action. That's another limitation that may sound good (protect Maryland-based retailers), but it's bad news for consumers.

It means, for instance, no wine-of-the-month clubs, gift baskets or foreign wines, all commonly sold by retailers rather than producers. As advocates recently testified in Annapolis, that means dozens of varieties of kosher wines made in Israel will continue to elude Jewish consumers in Maryland because importers can't sell directly to consumers.

The fight over direct shipment is a classic example of deep-pocketed special interests not wanting to cede any ground where potential profits are involved. Alcohol wholesalers have a loud voice in Annapolis, thanks to their lobbyists and campaign contributions, while ordinary wine hobbyists and consumers do not.

But what wine lovers do have going for them is that they are in the right. Some 37 states allow direct shipment, and their experience demonstrates that it's good for wineries, retailers and consumers without doing harm to wholesalers.

Legislators need to refrain from their usual inclination to cut backroom deals, appease those with political clout or "go slow" with policy changes. Instead, they ought to act in the interests of their constituents and allow Maryland consumers a chance to buy directly from wineries and retailers and have it shipped to their door, as wine drinkers in the vast majority of states can already.

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