Few takers so far for direct wine shipping

This week, Maryland wine lovers will be able to get their favorite bottles delivered directly to their homes — so long as they're interested in buying from one of the 11 wineries that have applied for a shipping permit.

Since the state made the applications available on June 10, just eight Maryland wineries have returned the forms, according to the office of the state comptroller. Three more from out of state have also applied.

Maryland is home to 50 wineries, and there are about 6,500 across the country.

Under the new law, passed this spring by the General Assembly after a multi-year fight, wineries must obtain a permit from the comptroller's office, post a $1,000 bond and pay $200 per year to the state.

On the imbiber's end, the person signing for the wine must prove to the delivery worker that he or she is at least 21 years old. Each consumer may have up to 18 cases per year delivered from each participating winery.

Baltimore County's Boordy Vineyards, Maryland's oldest and best-known winery, was among the first to apply for a permit. Owner Rob Deford said shipping is "an absolute must" for new wineries — but even at age 66, his winery can use home delivery as a marketing tool.

"Maryland is not an easy place to grow grapes," he said, "but when you get it right, the wines can be just beautiful."

Direct shipping will help get those wines into more glasses, Deford said.

The vineyard, which sells about 42,000 cases per year, plans to use direct shipping for a new venture — called the landmark project — that Deford said will "promote premium wines driven by nature, not consumer demand."

If those wines are popular among home delivery recipients, he said, they'll circulate into the larger market.

Winery owners and consumer advocates said one reason that so few wineries have applied for permits so far could be the season.

Summer isn't the ideal time to transport wine, which could degrade in the heat. It's also growing season, and some winery owners, including Bert Basignani of his namesake Baltimore County winery, say they've been so busy with farming that they haven't had time to take a breath and apply for the shipping permit.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot said there's also a "learning curve." He predicted it would "take a while for the wine community to adjust" to direct shipping.

"People need to get comfortable with the new law once it kicks in," he said. "For decades, the wine industry has seen Maryland as a medieval regulatory state. They slapped their foreheads and wondered what we were thinking."

Maryland, which has some of the tightest alcohol controls in the nation, was one of 13 states that did not allow wineries to ship directly to customers. Violating the law was a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Franchot believes that "thousands" of Marylanders circumvented the law by having bottles shipped to their offices in Washington or a friend's home in Virginia — still a crime, if you're caught.

Wine retailers are still not allowed to ship to consumers, which keeps popular Internet-based wine-of-the-month clubs off limits, though consumer advocates have vowed to continue lobbying Annapolis to allow retail delivery.

"If there's a particular bottle that you want shipped, and it's not offered by one of the wineries with a permit, you're right back to the same problem as before the new law," said Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws.

"There were people who felt, let's get this done right the first time. But the General Assembly was more, 'One step at a time.'"

Borden said the cost to sign up, including the $200 yearly fee and a $100 annual insurance payment on the required $1,000 bond, might be prohibitive for many of the country's smaller wineries.

Sarah O'Herron, an owner of the smaller but critically acclaimed Black Ankle Vineyard in Frederick County, said the permit fee is expensive compared to those of other states.

While Black Ankle has signed up, O'Herron said it might not make fiscal sense for Black Ankle-sized vineyards in other states to do so.

New Hampshire eliminated its permit fee, choosing to focus on the state revenue it can generate from sales tax on the shipped wine.

Maryland's sales tax on wine, as on all alcoholic beverages, rises from 6 percent to 9 percent on Friday.

Legislative analysts predict that direct shipping will net the state an extra $27,300 this year, mainly from permit application fees, and more than $100,000 in future years. The number could go way up, depending upon wine sales.

States that have had shipping laws on the books for years, including New Hampshire, have amassed lists of 1,000 or more participating wineries. Maryland's 11 early adopters, many predict, will quickly have company.

Kevin Atticks of the Maryland Wineries Association said it typically takes wineries a few months to adjust to a new law, but he anticipates huge interest. Maryland's wine consumers, he said, are some of the most knowledgeable in the country.

"Maryland is a big wine market," he said, "and we're one of the last big ones to fall. I expect the number [of permits] to go way up."

Atticks said his group has fielded calls from wineries in California, Oregon and New Mexico, among other states, inquiring about shipping to Maryland. This month, large trade groups such as Wine America and California's Wine Institute have begun promoting Maryland's new law to members and on websites.

But Atticks said it is individual consumers who will convince their favorite wineries to sign up.

That has already happened in at least one instance.

Parkville resident Robert Johnson was so impressed by a visit last year to Washington's Westport Winery — home of the Duckleberry Grunt, "a wham-bang Gewürztraminer" — that he signed up for its wine club, and had the cases delivered to his sister in Virginia.

He stopped doing that, he said, because he couldn't make it out to see her often enough.

But when Johnson learned Maryland was about to lift its shipping ban, he emailed Westport and asked them to apply for a permit.

The three-year-old winery sells about 6,500 cases per year, a relatively small amount, and ships to about a dozen states, said Carrie Roberts, daughter of Westport's owners and its tasting room manager. After receiving Johnson's note, the winery applied to ship to Maryland.

They might ship to only one person in Maryland, Roberts said, but "that's OK. We think wine should be fun. For us, it's about that personal connection."

Johnson, 43, is tickled by their effort, given that he's planning to order maybe a couple dozen bottles, at about $20 apiece, per year.

Although a self-described wine novice, Johnson said he enjoys uncorking a bottle from Westport because it brings back memories of his trip out west, which he shares with his drinking companions.

"And now," he said, "I'll have an even better story to tell."

Wine shipping applications received

Black Ankle, Frederick County

Boordy Vineyards, Baltimore County

Elk Run Vineyards, Carroll County

Far Eastern Shore Winery, Talbot County (Mesozoic Technologies)

Fiore Winery, Harford County

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Frederick County

Terrapin Station Winery, Montgomery County (Diamondback Wine)

Tilmon's Island Winery, Queen Anne's County

Pride Mountain Vineyards, California

Spanos-Berberian Winery, California

no website found

Westport Winery, Washington