Md.'s wine shipment laws create smuggling routes from D.C. and Va.

Eric, identified only by first name because of potential legal liability, and his wife have wine shipments delivered to his wife's D.C. office.
Eric, identified only by first name because of potential legal liability, and his wife have wine shipments delivered to his wife's D.C. office. (Susan Biddle)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011

To find that rare California cabernet or New York Riesling, wine aficionados in the Maryland suburbs of Washington are routinely, and in many cases unknowingly, breaking state law to get around rules that restrict residents from having wine shipped to their homes.

Lawyers, government consultants, high-tech workers and even members of the General Assembly - all typically law-abiding residents - have developed an indirect route for smuggling their favorite vino. They have wine delivered to offices in the District or to the homes of friends in Virginia - two of the 38 jurisdictions nationwide that allow vineyards to ship wine directly to consumers.

When Maryland wine connoisseurs drive their cases back across the Free State border, however, they are technically committing a crime - a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $10,000 and prison sentence of up to five years. State officials say no residents in recent memory have been prosecuted.

"We know we could be on the border of Washington or Virginia to watch people purchase and bring it into Maryland," said Jeffrey A. Kelly, head of enforcement in the state comptroller's office that is responsible for collecting the alcohol tax. "But that's not our interest. We don't have enough people to do it."

After years of failed efforts, momentum is building among lawmakers in Annapolis for legislation that would change the Prohibition-era rules before the General Assembly session ends in April. Past measures have faced strong opposition from the alcohol industry, which is threatened by the prospect of cutting out the middlemen in what is a heavily regulated system of wholesalers, distributors and retailers.

The effort is popular with oenophiles, who pressed their case with lawmakers during last year's election season. For serious wine drinkers, it's a matter of having access to limited-production wines and being able to join wine-of-the-month clubs. Buying wine, they say, is like buying art.

"It's almost offensive because it's controlling what I can and cannot buy and bring into my own home. It's not harming anyone or anything," said Barbara, a Montgomery County resident who has wine she has tasted during visits to Napa delivered to her husband's office in the District.

In one case, a Howard County resident described having a hard-to-find red blend she discovered at a Maryland vineyard shipped to her nonprofit office in the District, only to drive it home to Maryland.

"It's especially ridiculous to have to have it shipped to another state to support a local business," said Brigitte, who like others interviewed for this report agreed to talk only on a first-name basis because of the potential legal liability.

The politics of the debate appear to have changed, though. In the past three years, lobbyists for the alcohol industry have successfully argued that direct shipment of wine would make it easier for minors to access alcohol. But a report issued in December by state Comptroller Peter Franchot that studied laws in other states found no significant increase in underage drinking in part because " 'wine' is not the drink of choice for youth."

Maryland wine lovers have also become more organized in lobbying legislators. Membership in the grass-roots group Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, for instance, has grown from about 1,200 in 2008 to more than 20,000.

"Consumers are finally starting to assert themselves," said Adam Borden, president of the group that last session raised awareness among legislators through e-mails and phone calls.

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