Manny Cebollero never considered himself a rebel. But two years ago, when the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control established regulations that would leave him stuck with broken or defective bottles of beer and wine, the 51-year-old Rockville liquor store owner decided to take his case to court--and in the process, to challenge the county's monopoly over liquor wholesaling.
But Cebollero, the owner of Belby's Discount Beer store at 888 Rockville Pike, lost last week in Montgomery County Circuit Court when Judge Richard B. Latham ruled that the county can continue to refuse to take back bottles after they are delivered.
The county argued that the no-return policy is necessary because some merchants were breaking bottles themselves when the products didn't sell, returning the broken bottles to the county and forcing the county--and the taxpayers--to absorb the losses.
Latham accepted that argument, adding that Cebollero didn't sufficiently prove his losses.
Montgomery maintains a monopoly over all liquor, beer and wine wholesaling in the county, a monopoly that county officials call necessary to insure control over the industry and to draw revenue for the county. But Cebollero, who buys $700,000 each year in beer alone, said that county control has meant that shipments are not delivered carefully.
Knowing that broken bottles cannot be returned after a shipment is accepted, Cebollero checks every bottle in every case before accepting delivery.
It is a time-consuming process, and Cebollero said one county delivery truck driver finally got tired of the wait and pulled off--leaving Belby's without beer or wine for a week last summer. Cebollero estimates that he lost $3,700 in sales that week.
"He just pulled away," Cebollero said. ". . . . That left me without beer and wine for a week. They have a monopoly, and when they don't deliver, you're out of business."
In his suit, Cebollero had asked for an award to cover that week's losses in sales, plus $7,000 for his attorney's fees. He also challenged the county's authority to refuse to take back damaged bottles after delivery, without giving merchants time to check the bottles.
Cebollero said breakage is his biggest problem with county shipments, estimating that they can run up to 5 percent on any given delivery. Wine gives him more trouble than beer, he said.
"The wine comes in sealed boxes. Some bottles don't have labels. Some could be cracked. We have accumulated bottles and bottles of bad wine," which he said could add up to more than $3,000 each year.