Vintage Bureaucracy

Laura Musel pours a glass of wine at Grapeseed American Bistro and Wine Bar, which uses special orders to buy wines not stocked by Montgomery.
Laura Musel pours a glass of wine at Grapeseed American Bistro and Wine Bar, which uses special orders to buy wines not stocked by Montgomery. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When chef Jeff Black needs fine wine for his District restaurant, BlackSalt, he simply calls his distributor, places an order and receives it by the next day.

At his three Montgomery County restaurants -- Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda, Addie's in Rockville and Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park --things get far more complicated and costly. That's because the primary vendor he relies on isn't a wine specialist but the Montgomery County government.

"In terms of being in the liquor business, they're just not very good at it," Black said. "Wine can be very daunting."

Montgomery is the only county in the United States that sells and distributes all alcoholic beverages: hard liquor, beer and wine. For residents, that often means shopping in county-operated liquor stores. For some Montgomery restaurants, particularly those catering to a fine-dining crowd, it often creates an expensive and maddening hassle. For the county, it's big business, amounting to $191 million in sales last fiscal year. The profits contributed $21 million to county coffers, officials said.

Buying unusual wines for a distinctive wine list can take months, Montgomery restaurateurs say. Some labels remain beyond their reach because some wineries and distributors refuse to deal with the county. Botched orders can take weeks to correct, they say, and once-weekly shipments can leave them apologizing to unhappy customers when a certain vintage runs out. Because of an extra county markup on special orders, diners often find wine lists in Montgomery more expensive.

"It's government," said Francois Dionot, owner of L'Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Gaithersburg, who owned the now-defunct Cafe Bethesda for 21 years. "They run it like they run the post office. Not that the post office isn't run well, but there's a lot of red tape."

The distribution system also bears some blame, restaurateurs say, for a relative shortage of upscale dining in Montgomery. Some chefs say they passed up mouth-watering demographics -- almost 1 million people, many with deep pockets -- because they found it too hard and expensive to keep the kind of impressive wine cellar that fine-dining customers expect.

"The vibe on the street with chefs is we're not going to Montgomery County because we don't want to deal with the wine laws," said Jonathan Krinn, who lives in Bethesda and is the chef at the upscale 2941 Restaurant in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County.

All states regulate alcohol by determining where, when and how it is sold through government-issued liquor licenses. Eighteen states, including Virginia, go one step further by having the state sell or distribute alcoholic beverages. In Virginia, for example, hard liquor is sold only in state stores. The District, considered an "open" jurisdiction, does not sell or distribute alcohol.

Maryland is an open state with the exception of Montgomery and three Eastern Shore counties that sell hard liquor. Montgomery has a monopoly on all hard liquor sales. Private stores may sell beer and wine that they have purchased through the county.

The law is strictly enforced. Montgomery inspectors regularly scrutinize restaurants' receipts. If the Board of License Commissioners finds that a restaurant has bought alcohol outside the county, the owners face penalties ranging from a $200 fine to suspension of their liquor license.

Montgomery officials say their unique approach to controlling alcoholic beverages helps limit such social ills as underage drinking, public drunkenness and drunken driving. And the revenue isn't bad.

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