Wine-shipping study begins

Consumer advocates are worried that a study of whether to overturn Maryland's much-criticized ban on direct-to-home shipments of wine might be stained by the same alcohol interests that have blocked changes in the General Assembly for years.

Wine drinkers said they were dismayed to find that they weren't invited to the first meeting last week held by the Maryland comptroller's office to study the wine-shipping issue.

The study commission seems to be focused on the potential impact on liquor wholesalers and distributors, and could "overlook" consumers, said Adam Borden, former executive director of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws.

The Maryland General Assembly this year called for a fact-based study of how other states have handled the wine shipping issue, looking to tamp down emotions surrounding efforts to overturn the state's ban on direct shipment of wine.

A majority of lawmakers supported overturning the ban, but it failed to make it to the floor of the Senate or House of Delegates for a vote. The heads of key committees that control the issue say they remain worried about underage drinking and tax collection from the out-of-state vendors.

Purchasing wine online or while visiting California's Napa Valley and having it shipped home circumvents the state's Prohibition-era alcohol regulation system, something the wholesalers, distributors and retailers licensed by the state oppose.

Lawmakers charged the comptroller with compiling information and presenting a report to the legislature by the end of the year. Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for the comptroller's office, said "stakeholders on both sides of the issue" attended the first meeting, which he described as a small work group.

Present were lobbyists for the liquor industry. Representatives from the Wine Institute and the Maryland Wineries Association also attended.

But there were no representatives of wine drinkers. Borden said the group he used to head could provide useful information: It has amassed data from the 37 states that allow direct shipment of wine.

Borden resigned as director of the group because his aggressive attempt to counter the liquor lobby was viewed by some lawmakers as distasteful. He said it taught him that "people in Annapolis are comfortable involving people they already know" — namely, lobbyists.

The day of the first meeting, the wine group sent a mass e-mail, asking its thousands of members to contact Comptroller Peter R. Franchot to "make sure he moves this commission forward and incorporates your perspective, not just the wholesalers.' "

Shapiro said Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws would be invited to the second meeting.

Jeff Kelly, director of field enforcement for the comptroller's office and head of the direct-shipping study, said the consumer advocates "have nothing to worry about."

"Our goal is to be completely factual," Kelly said.

Those who attended the first meeting said it had a neutral tone. The study will not reach any conclusions or recommend any pro- or anti-shipping legislation, Kelly told them.

"Jeff Kelly painstakingly and effectively indicated it would be a thorough, fair and impartial study" said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland. "We listened and gave constructive suggestions about the process."

Kevin Atticks, director of the Maryland Wineries Association, gave a similar account. "Strong opinions were not welcome," he said, "and they were not voiced."

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