BOTTLED UP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All Mark Emon, owner of St. Michaels Winery, wanted to do was ship to a customer from New York who loved his Maryland-made wine. But since Maryland doesn't permit direct shipment of wine within the state, New York ruled this summer he could not ship out of it. The result? No sale.

"This is St. Michaels. We get tourists," says Mr. Emon, who employs nine people at his Eastern Shore winery, one of the state's top five producers. "How much business do I lose? I'm asked several times a day if we can ship, whether in state or out of state. It's a lot."

Mr. Emon isn't the only one who has soured on a Maryland law that prevents wineries from shipping to people's homes. Wine enthusiasts have been protesting the prohibition for nearly three decades. It's a foolish anachronism that not only stunts the growth of the state's modest wine industry but also reduces consumer choice while protecting the narrow interests of wholesalers and retailers.

Currently, 37 states representing more than 80 percent of the U.S. population permit wineries to ship through carriers such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. It's taken for granted from Florida to Washington state. Most people can visit a winery anywhere in the U.S. and send home a case - or join a club and receive a monthly bottle and an informative note from the vintner.

But Maryland has clung to an outdated, three-tiered regulatory system developed after Prohibition that requires alcohol to pass from producer to wholesaler to retailer before it reaches the consumer. Clearly, its authors never anticipated the growth of the U.S. wine industry and its thousands of small producers creating wines in relatively small batches.

Advocates estimate that perhaps only 15 percent of American-made wines can be found in Maryland restaurants and store shelves today. The rest is denied to the public because of the ban on direct shipment.

Opponents - chiefly alcohol distributors and retailers - say direct shipment would encourage under-age drinking and allow producers to circumvent state taxes. Neither charge is true.

Rare is the teen who orders wine over the Internet. That's because of how the law works: Deliveries must be signed by the person who ordered and photo ID presented verifying age, a requirement that's actually more effective than retailers' spot checks. It's simply far easier and cheaper for minors to raid a parent's liquor cabinet or get an older friend to buy alcohol for them.

Taxes get paid, too. The General Assembly's own analysts have noted that tax revenue would likely go up, not down, if direct shipment were permitted.

The real reason wholesalers and retailers fight against direct shipment is the prospect that it would lead to other forms of deregulation in Maryland's alcohol laws and the possibility that, without existing protections (however byzantine), their businesses may become less profitable.

That's not sufficient cause to deny Maryland residents the opportunity to sample the 85 percent of U.S. wine that can't be found here today. Past efforts to provide a compromise have proven fruitless. A cumbersome law that allows wineries to ship to consumers through the normal supply chain (and allow an order to be picked up at a local store) is an abject failure: Fewer than 66 cases of wine have been sold this way over the six years it's been in effect.

But you can bet state lawmakers will be reluctant to tinker with alcohol laws in an election year. Although direct shipment has broad support - a majority of the House of Delegates co-sponsored the proposal this year - it's always gotten bottled up in committee. Consider Exhibit A of the alcohol lobby's clout in Annapolis: Maryland's liquor taxes are among the rock-bottom lowest in the nation despite the state's desperate need for new tax revenue.

How can average people pitch in to promote this needed reform? A good place to start is to call or write state lawmakers, particularly Baltimore's Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate committee that handles liquor laws.

There are three dozen wineries like Mr. Emon's in St. Michaels that stand to benefit. But legislators must also realize there are also tens of thousands of wine lovers (and voters) who are bound to be grateful, too.

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