Earlier this year, Maryland lawmakers introduced legislation, HB 234, to legalize the direct shipment of wine to consumers from out-of-state wineries and retailers. In the lower chamber, 83 of 141 representatives co-sponsored the measure. In the upper chamber, 32 of 47 senators signed on.
Oenophiles rejoiced. Finally, Maryland residents would be able to purchase wine from their favorite artisanal producers, order wine from Internet retailers, join wine-of-the-month clubs and take part in out-of-state wine auctions.
At the time, I urged caution — predicting that the retail component of the bill would fail. Indeed, just days later, The Post reported that “some lawmakers . . . [had] expressed concern about the potential harm to local stores if the bill allows consumers to have wine shipped from out-of-state retailers.” The Post article went on to quote Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for the wholesaling industry, who argued that the existing proposal would “harm in-state liquor stores that are family-owned and part of the fabric of communities.”
My prediction has since come true. On Tuesday, the House Economic Matters Committee endorsed a competing proposal, HB 1175, which legalizes shipping from out-of-state wineries but not out-of-state retailers. This proposal has just two sponsors — Dereck Davis, who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, and Charles Barkley, who chairs the committee’s alcohol subcommittee. That same day, the Senate approved an amended version of their original bill so it would match up with the House measure. On Friday, both bills won approval from the full General Assembly, so they are headed to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk.
If you’re wondering why lawmakers would move forward with a bill that had just two supporters while a similar bill with 83 supporters is under consideration, just follow the money. Since 2004, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the three most powerful groups representing Maryland wholesalers and retailers have contributed more than $260,000 to Maryland lawmakers. Dereck Davis has been a top recipient of funds from these special-interest groups.
Bereano is right, of course, as the bill would force in-state liquor stores to compete against out-of-state retailers like K&L Wine Merchants, Wine Library and hundreds of specialty retailers. But that doesn’t make his argument any more legitimate.
Maryland’s mom-and-pop bookstores have to compete with Amazon, and Baltimore’s trendy shoe boutiques have to compete with Zappos. If Maryland lawmakers decided to prohibit residents from ordering books, shoes or other wares online, they’d be laughed out of office. And voters — stuck with fewer choices and higher prices — would be infuriated.
Yet this is exactly what’s happening with wine. Whether you’re a wine snob, a beer swiller or a teetotaler, this should make your blood boil. It’s protectionism at its worst, and it’s crushing consumer choice.
David White, Washington
The writer is the founder and editor of the wine blog Terroirist.com.