Small steps toward fairer Md. wine laws

Columnist April 5, 2011

Maryland’s wine lovers won a partial victory in this year’s state legislative assembly when lawmakers voted to allow wineries to ship their products directly to consumers’ homes.

“Direct shipping” has been a catchphrase of wine politics since at least 1996, when I first wrote about it in the Food section. Of the 50 states, Maryland has among the strictest rules protecting the traditional three-tier distribution system — producer, wholesaler and retailer — and the power of wholesalers to control the availability of wines on local retail shelves. Consumers who want to buy out-of-state wines that aren’t in that distribution system have fought their way to the U.S. Supreme Court and state legislatures and courts across the country. With this legislation, Maryland will become the 38th state (plus the District of Columbia) to allow direct shipping of wine to buyers.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

So on your next visit to California wine country, or New York’s Finger Lakes or Long Island — or even Hermann, Mo., or Fredericksburg, Tex. — if you fall in love with a cabernet, a Riesling, a Norton or a blanc du bois, you can buy a case and have it shipped home, rather than schlepp bottles in your luggage.

In theory, at least. There are limitations. You will be allowed to buy up to 18 cases annually for shipment home, which is probably enough for most people and ridiculously unenforceable, anyway. More worrisome: Out-of-state wineries will have to post a $1,000 bond, pay a $200 annual fee for the privilege of shipping to Maryland residents, and file quarterly reports stating which Marylanders are receiving their wines.

That fee is not exorbitant compared with those in other states, according to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. But it’s a barrier, and there are likely to be some wineries, especially smaller ones, that will choose not to ship to Maryland even though they will now be allowed to.

Despite heavy lobbying by advocacy groups such as Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws and the Wine Merchant Association of Maryland, the legislature refused to extend the direct-shipping approval to retailers. If you like the selection and competitive pricing at the Wine Library in Springfield, N.J., you’ll still have to drive there, while your Virginia friends can pick up the phone and place an order.

Wine clubs are a mixed bag. If you belong to the wine club at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, you will no longer have to drive to the winery to pick up your purchases; the new law allows Maryland wineries to ship in-state as well. And if you like California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard, you can now join one of its several wine clubs. However, only clubs backed by wineries won shipping rights. If, like me, you drool over the catalogue from the Bounty Hunter, a Napa retailer that specializes in small-production, high-quality California wines, forget about joining its clubs. Same with clubs sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today.

Maryland wine collectors who want to take their special bottles to a restaurant will have to take their business out of state: The legislature axed bills to allow “corkage” in several counties, including Montgomery and Frederick.

I cannot conceive of an argument that letting a restaurant permit diners to bring their own wine will hurt the eatery’s bottom line; the restaurant could always say no. Virginia’s legislature was more enlightened this year, passing legislation that overturned the Commonwealth’s long-standing ban on corkage (which probably was honored mostly in the breach, anyway).

As I’ve written here before, direct shipping and corkage are issues of simple fairness. They are not pressing matters of civil rights, justice or government finance. Maryland’s lawmakers had many more-weighty measures on their agenda this year. They are to be applauded for finally listening to consumers and taking a (small) step in the right direction on wine legislation.

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