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Could MD wine drinkers taste freedom this year?

2011-01-30

Examiner.com

Rob Garretson
DC Budget Wine Examiner

January 30th, 2011 4:27 pm ET

We’ve heard it all before. This may very well be the year that Maryland finally gives its citizens the freedom of choice enjoyed in 37 other states and the District of Columbia by ending its prohibition-era ban on the delivery of wine from out of state.

Of course, last year was supposed to be the year. So was 2009, when a Senate Bill 338, aimed at legalizing direct wine shipment, died in the legislature. As did SB-616 in 2008.

Some version of this sad tale has played out nearly every year since 1980. So why will this year’s proposal – SB-248/HB-234 introduced Friday – be any different?

Proponents are buoyed by the fact that the new bill, introduced by Senator Jamie Raskin (D - Montgomery) and Delegate Jolene Ivey (D – Prince George’s), is sponsored by 83 of 141 Delegates in the House and an even greater majority of the Senate, 32 out of 47. Among the signatures on the House bill is Speaker of the House Michael Busch and Delegate Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, where last year’s bill died in a bizarre 12 to 8 vote in favor of sending the measure to the House floor. (See “Wine shipping in MD dies on the vine again.”)

The legislation, if passed, would legalize the shipment of wine to Maryland consumers by creating a new $100 “direct wine seller’s permit” available to both wineries and retailers – in-state and out-of-state – issued by the comptroller’s office. The legislation’s only real limitation would be to cap the annual amount of wine you could order from any one retailer, winery or wine club at 24 cases (188 bottles), a limit way beyond the average wine buyer. It is what Matt Kircher calls on the Vinotrip wine blog “a clear triumph of logic over fear and speculation.”

Advocates of the bill are also heartened by a study conducted by the state Office of the Comptroller, which polled Maryland consumers and alcohol licensees and studied the 37 states that currently allow direct shipping, largely debunking many of the nonsensical arguments of the liquor lobby; silliest among them that direct wine shipping would lead to a rash of underage drinking.

“With the Comptroller’s direct shipping study conclusively debunking all of the myths around this issue, especially underage access, the bill is cleared for passage,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, in a prepared statement.

“This legislation as it stands will finally bring Maryland into the 21st Century,” said John Hesse, Executive Director of the grass-roots lobbying group Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws.

But the key to Hesse’s enthusiasm is the phrase “as it stands”. Veterans of this perennial legislative fight fear that the liquor lobby will continue to work behind the scenes to water down the bill with amendments. Its primary target will likely be those pesky out-of-state retailers and wine clubs; so expect the liquor lobby to seek changes that would restrict a direct wine seller’s permit to wineries alone.

And, of course, when we say “liquor lobby” we really just mean the beer and wine wholesalers represented by the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association. The wine shipping bill was immediately endorsed by the Maryland Wineries Association, Wine Merchants Association of Maryland, and the Maryland Farm Bureau, as well as the California-based Wine Institute and MBBWL.

It’s the wholesalers who throw the money around in Annapolis, and it’s their influence that wine shipping advocates fear. Their fingerprints were all over that 257-page report by Comptroller Peter Franchot, which endorsed direct sales of wine to Maryland residents by out-of-state wineries, but drew some strangely unsupported conclusions about the impact of shipments from out-of-state retailers.

It’s bad enough that the report makes this off-the-wall statement about the consumer groups that advocate direct wine shipping: “The chief principle of these and other similar organizations is “consumer choice,” which is at odds with the purposes of the three- tier distribution system: (1) obedience to law; (2) orderly distribution of alcoholic beverages; and (3) temperance.”

But he gathers potentially useful facts, and then proceeds to ignore them. He concludes:

"A determination is made that direct wine shipment by out-of-state retailers to Maryland consumers would have a negative effect on in-state licensees, because purchases from retailers are primarily motivated by 'price.'”

Yet the Comptroller’s own survey of Maryland consumers found that the primary reasons for buying wine online were, in order:

1) Not available at a local retailer,

2) Wanting to buy directly from a winery,

3) Convenience of Delivery ,

4) Price.

How did Franchot decide online wine buyers are primarily motivated by price, when price ranked last on the list of reasons Marylanders would buy online? We think Tom Wark, author of the well-read Fermentation wine blog, has it right.

“How does a completely bogus conclusion find its way into an otherwise impressive report that has to be described as prudent, thoughtful, and thorough?” he asks. “The answer is lobbying, money and influence.”

So if you live in Maryland and want access to a much larger selection of wines, including small production domestics, more imports, the various wine-of-the-month clubs or wine gift baskets for local friends and families, contact your representatives and let them know you don’t want SB-248/HB-234 watered down with amendments in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate.

When we emailed the one of our three House Delegates whose name wasn’t among the sponsors of HG-234 to complain yesterday (a Saturday), we got a reply from Delegate Luiz Simmons within 40 minutes, pledging his support for the bill and offering a very plausible explanation for why he wasn’t at the State House when the bill was circulated for signatures.

Email your Delegates and Senators today (if you don’t know who they are, check here) and let them know you where you stand. It will be five minutes well spent.

Cheers!

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Email the DC Budget Wine Examiner at budgetwineguy@gmail.com.

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