Bill Allows Shipment Of Wine to, From State

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

To critics, it's a law born out of the Prohibition Era that has grown antiquated in today's Internet economy: Wine cannot be shipped in Maryland.

If a Marylander samples wine at vineyards in California's Sonoma area, it is illegal to have a case of the winning merlot shipped home.

So two Montgomery County legislators, after being flooded with complaints from their constituents, have proposed a law that would change the rules and allow the shipment of wine to and from Maryland.

Wine aficionados and retailers testified yesterday before the House Economic Matters Committee, which began weighing legislation to follow 35 other jurisdictions, including Virginia and the District, in legalizing wine shipments.

Tom McQuighan, an engineer from Gaithersburg, sat through more than three hours of testimony before approaching the microphone to tell lawmakers about his recent vacation to California. After touring vineyards, he found the ideal pinot noir and red zinfandel.

"I would love to share these with you today, but I am prohibited under Maryland law," McQuighan told the panel of lawmakers, saying he was dismayed to discover that he could not ship cases of wine home.

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), one of the bill's sponsors, said wine lovers "all want a free market in wine, and we can give it to them."

"This law dates back to the repeal of Prohibition, and it's obsolete today," Raskin said. "We have an opportunity to strike a blow for market freedom and the civilized pleasure of wine drinking."

Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), the other sponsor, said the ban is "very hard to explain to my constituents." He said that allowing shipments of wine will increase choices for Maryland consumers.

"It's unrealistic to expect the corner store to provide every kind of wine people need," Hucker said. "I think this is a common-sense bill to change an inexplicable system."

But the proposal could face a challenge in the General Assembly. The liquor lobby opposes the measure, saying it could increase minors' access to alcohol because it is difficult to verify the ages of Internet customers. Further, opponents said it could cut into revenue for local distributors and retailers.

"This is a money loser," said Chuck Ferrar, owner of Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits in Annapolis. "I hope you knock it down."

Steve Wise, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, said the bill would allow out-of-state retailers -- such as "Tony Soprano Liquors in Upstate New York," Wise said in a joke referring to the television mobster -- to sell wine to Marylanders.

"You'll just open the floodgates," Wise said. "There are reasons you have the rules in Maryland you have now and don't throw them away with one vote."

The legislation is designed in part to give consumers access to little-known winemakers and allow Maryland wineries to ship their products across the country.

But Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, said the bill would help only national distributors and major winemakers.

"They don't give a damn about the state of Maryland," said Bereano, eliciting laughter from the committee. "All they care about is their own greed, about selling wine."

Still, the majority of other states allow direct wine shipments.

"The sky has not fallen in any of those states," said Brandon Arnold, governmental affairs director at the Cato Institute.

Indeed, some Maryland residents are known to order wine online, have it shipped to their offices in Washington and then drive it across the state line to their homes.

"High-income purchasers end up smuggling their wine into the state," said Arian Jakob, who owns a wine store in Pikesville.

One witness went so far as to try to convince lawmakers that passing the measure would improve their public image. Scott Ehlers, executive director of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, said people say "ugly" things about the legislature because of the ban on wine shipments.

"People go to California, to Washington state, they want to be able to ship home wine from their vacations, and they're very angry about that," Ehlers said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company