Robert Parker, VOLT and Maryland's flawed liquor laws

It probably came as no surprise to Chef Bryan Voltaggio that when Robert M. Parker Jr., the country's leading wine critic and a Baltimore County resident, came to dine at his VOLT restaurant in Frederick last November, he brought wine from his own cellar. Selections like a 1982 Cheval Blanc St.-Emilion (which retails for about $1,000, if you can find it) aren't usually available on restaurant wine lists.

But when the influential Mr. Parker gushed over the quality of the 21-course meal that ranged from goat cheese ravioli to squab with Brussels sprouts in his newsletter, "Hedonist's Gazette," this spring, it was Mr. Voltaggio who almost got stuck with the bill. He was warned by the Frederick County Liquor Board that he had broken the law and that he could have been fined thousands of dollars and/or had his license to serve alcoholic beverages suspended.

The violation? Under Maryland law, it is illegal for a restaurant with a liquor license to allow patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverage to the table — despite the common practice known as corkage, where restaurants charge for opening a patron's bottle.

The law is, of course, nonsensical. Most restaurants without a liquor license are perfectly free to allow a customer to bring his own alcohol (although the law regarding the practice varies county by county). This is one case where owning a liquor license actually gives a restaurant fewer rights to serve alcohol instead of more.

It's also yet another example of the convoluted, antiquated and anti-consumer nature of Maryland's liquor laws, the infamous three-tiered system that seems bent more on assuring the profits of wholesalers then maintaining reasonable controls on licensing and distribution.

While it's cheering to hear that the Maryland General Assembly may finally be ready to allow direct shipment of wine to consumers next year — as House and Senate leaders recently told The Sun's Annie Linskey — a repeal of the ban on corkage ought to be on the legislative agenda, too.

Restaurant owners should have the option of allowing customers to bring their own bottles. It's a common practice in other jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia where a recent survey found leading restaurants generally charge a $20 corkage fee and average little more than one such episode per week.

Yet, the liquor industry can be expected to fight any such change, and to offer a litany of laughable justifications for the status quo. They claim it could lead to excess and underage drinking and potentially circumvent taxes. But restaurants would still exercise control over whether to allow the practice, and some could simply refuse to allow BYOB. Moreover, how does it control underage drinking to ban corkage in restaurants with liquor licenses — where servers are used to checking IDs and where liquor inspectors routinely monitor compliance — and not in restaurants that lack them?

Admittedly, there would be some details to iron out. There probably ought to be some limits on how much restaurants could charge for corkage, and patrons ought to be allowed to bring an unfinished bottle home. (The legislature made a rare vote for common sense in liquor laws a few years ago in deciding it was better to allow patrons to cork and bring home an unfinished bottle of wine rather than feel the pressure to drink the last drop before driving home; however, the law only applies to bottles bought in a restaurant, not those patrons brought with them.) Corkage should also apply only to wine served with meals.

But in the context of Maryland's convoluted liquor laws, these are minor particulars. The current ban on corkage doesn't pass the sensibility test.

When one of Maryland's most famous chefs (presently featured with his brother Michael Voltaggio in a two-page spread in the Williams-Sonoma catalogue) and the nation's most famous wine connoisseur get together and the resulting meal is somehow regarded as a violation of the law, then there's a problem with the law.

Preventing people from bringing wine to a restaurant — and that restaurant from charging corkage for that service — can't be good for restaurants in the midst of a recession. Nor would wholesalers be headed to bankruptcy if corkage is allowed.

This is by no means the most egregious regulatory excess in Maryland's byzantine liquor laws, but it is one of the oddest. That the ban is not widely enforced by local liquor boards is no excuse. Just as wine lovers should have the right to have wine legally shipped to their door, customers ought to be able to bring it with them to lunch or dinner at a restaurant that's willing to allow such a practice. Maryland deserves liquor laws that put the public's interest ahead of the industry's.