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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 02/ 5/2011

Wine freedom in Maryland: Just a taste won't do

By David White, Washington

In January, lawmakers in Maryland’s General Assembly introduced legislation to legalize the direct shipment of wine to consumers from out-of-state wineries and retailers. In the lower chamber, 83 of 141 representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. In the upper chamber, 32 of 47 senators signed on.

Don’t pop the cork just yet. One of the nation’s most powerful lobbying forces will fight tooth and nail against this proposal. And lawmakers have already suggested that they’re willing to “compromise” with these lobbyists. Del. Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Economic Matters Committee, has suggested that one possible compromise would keep in place the Maryland laws that prohibit residents from ordering wine from Internet retailers, joining wine-of-the-month clubs and taking part in out-of-state wine auctions.

Such a compromise should be offensive to wine snobs and beer swillers alike. Maryland residents must fight for this bill as it’s written.

Maryland is one of just 13 states that forbid winery-to-consumer shipping. It’s one of 37 states that prohibit residents from ordering wine from out-of-state retailers.

State officials argue that online sales — from wineries and retailers — enable minors to buy booze. Teenagers are certainly resourceful when it comes to obtaining liquor, but it’s unlikely that they’d be willing to jump through all the hoops required to purchase wine online. For starters, they’d need a credit card and the ability to make it through the numerous age verification services used to thwart underage purchasing. They’d then need to be home when the wine is delivered while making sure their parents were not. They’d also have to sign for the wine, convincing a FedEx or UPS employee that they’re over 21.

Most important, they’d need money. Many California cult wines cost $50 or more a bottle. Auctioned wines are even more expensive.

State officials also contend that online sales enable retailers and wineries to “dodge state taxes.” This, too, is absurd. Maryland manages to collect sales taxes on just about every other retail product without the help of wholesalers.

The truth is that these laws have their roots in Prohibition, and they remain in place only because of well-financed special-interest groups.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states were given the power to regulate booze within their borders. While some states decided to take over the sale and distribution of liquor completely, most created a “wholesale tier” to sit between producers and consumers. This middle tier — an artificial, state-mandated middleman — quickly became enormous.

The wholesaling industry is quite generous to politicians. Between 2000 and 2006, according to the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, which opposes restrictions on wine sales across state borders, wholesalers contributed nearly $50 million to state campaigns. These donations make perfect sense, since politicians keep the wholesalers in business by protecting the middle tier.

However, consumer support for the three-tier system began to evaporate in the 1990s, when Americans started developing a taste for small-production wines and could find them, thanks largely to the Internet. Across the country, people began to order wine directly from producers — only to discover that most states prohibited winery-to-consumer shipping.

In 2005, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling that states could limit direct sales only if laws were applied consistently. Because Maryland lawmakers were willing to block their own wineries from shipping wine, they could prohibit direct shipping from out-of-state wineries. So they did.

Ever since, Maryland’s oenophiles have been pushing lawmakers to loosen restrictions on direct shipping and Web sales. Legislation was introduced in each of the past three legislative sessions. But all these proposals failed, foiled by wholesalers who want to remain a part of, and make money from, every liquor transaction.

In December, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot issued a much-anticipated report on wine shipping, endorsing direct shipping from out-of-state wineries. He stopped short, though, of backing direct shipments from out-of-state retailers. This didn’t make sense; there’s virtually no difference between the transactions.

Consider the budding oenophile in Towson who discovers that all her favorite small-production Oregon pinot noirs are available through a wine club in California. Or the Bethesda resident arranging her father’s 70th birthday party, who finds a bottle of 1941 Bordeaux at an online auction. Or the young Baltimore couple, planning a wedding on the Eastern Shore, who find an online bargain on their favorite champagne.

In Maryland today, all those transactions would be illegal.

Prohibition was repealed nearly 90 years ago. That’s why residents across the border in the District of Columbia can order from wineries, out-of-state retailers, auction houses, and the like. Maryland lawmakers must support the bill as it’s currently written so their constituents can enjoy these same freedoms.

David White is the founder and editor of the wine blog Terroirist.com.

By David White, Washington  | February 5, 2011; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Maryland, public health  
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Comments


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Posted by: damonpaylor | February 6, 2011 1:21 AM | Report abuse

Oh my, you wouldn't want some 20 year old to have a glass of wine - it might corrupt him. But, of course, since he was 18 he was allowed to go and KILL America's enemies.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | February 6, 2011 1:44 AM | Report abuse

It's simple for me living in MD next to DC. I just make my online orders and have them shipped to friends and family who live in the DC. DC gets the taxes for the purchases and I get my wine. If MD government and Comptroller Peter Franchot (for whom I voted forever but not anymore) can't fathom the loss of this revenue stream because of the alchol/liquor lobby, then too bad for them. I will get my wine one way or another.

Posted by: pmyokhin1 | February 6, 2011 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Banning and "barring" Maryland interstate wine sales violates the "interstate commerce" clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Posted by: geesam47 | February 6, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

This is nothing. Here in Connecticut, alcohol cannot be sold.on Sunday or after 9PM. Never mind that you can still go to bars, get trashed, then drive home well after 9 PM any day of the week.

The author is right- its neo-prohibitionism. These laws serve no purpose.

Posted by: jboogie1 | February 6, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

This is truly ridiculous and a prime source of political corruption in Maryland as this powerful lobby pays legislators to keep their monopoly.

My sister only drinks chardonnay; I dislike it. Finally I found a chardonnay I can stand--at the Biltmore Estates winery in Ashville, NC. Can I import it so we can serve one wine at dinner parties? No!

Come on Peter Franchot!! Come on House and Senate! Come on Governor O'Malley! Get with the 21st century and allow mailing of wine from out of state.

Posted by: commonsense101 | February 6, 2011 7:46 PM | Report abuse

And do those three-tier thugs remember what Jefferson said? “Wine from long habit is essential to my health?” For thousands of years all of us of European heritage drank wine for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- man, woman and CHILD! But it wasn’t the fast-food wine the thugs promote – it is the wine from the small family-farmer winemaker in this country. It is outrageous their wine can’t be sent to us!!!

Posted by: thetruthonly | February 6, 2011 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how many beer busts teenagers smuggle in their California estate wines? How much longer will Maryland put up with Sharia wine laws?!

Posted by: gc1123 | February 6, 2011 8:55 PM | Report abuse

It's always the excuse du jor: "What about the children"? Grow up ,Maryland.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 7, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

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