Baltimore City and County Join Movement for Wine Corkage Changes
By Scott Graham
Baltimore Business Journal Staff
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Baltimore City and Baltimore and Frederick counties are joining the movement to lift the ban on wine corkage at restaurants that hold a liquor license.
Lawmakers in Baltimore City and Frederick County submitted legislation late Monday that, if approved, would allow diners to bring and open their own bottles of wine in restaurants in those areas of the state. Baltimore County is expected to follow suit, bringing to five the number of jurisdictions interested in lifting the ban on wine corkage at restaurants that sell alcohol.
Lawmakers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties began working on the legislation late last year and could formally introduce their respective bills later this week.
Sponsors of the legislation say they back a repeal of the wine corkage law as a means of increasing business for restaurants in their districts, not necessarily catering to wine drinkers. Del. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery Democrat, said his bill could help restaurants in areas like Bethesda compete with eateries located “literally down the road” in Washington, D.C., where wine corkage is allowed.
“It’s a leveling of the playing field between Montgomery County restaurants and D.C. restaurants,” he said.
Like Feldman’s bill, which he said could be approved by the Montgomery County delegation later this week, the legislation filed for Baltimore City and Frederick County includes provisions that allow restaurant owners to charge patrons a corkage fee and then apply the sales tax rate to that fee. Restaurants also do not have to participate; they still can choose not to allow customers to bring their own wine.
Del. Shawn Tarrant, a Democrat who introduced Baltimore City’s bill, said he heard from constituents who want to be able to serve food to big groups like wedding parties that have their own wine. For those restaurateurs, some business is better than none, Tarrant said, whose House Bill 114 will first be heard in the House Economic Matters Committee.
“In this economy, half a loaf is better than no loaf,” he said.
Still, the proposal to lift the wine corkage ban is not without controversy. The Restaurant Association of Maryland released a statement Jan. 20 that said most of its 450 members that hold a liquor license do not support the legislation. About three-fourths of them said their patrons rarely or never ask to bring a bottle of their wine to the restaurant, the group’s survey found.
The restaurant association also is worried changes to the corkage law could decrease sales for restaurants that don’t participate, confuse some patrons and lead to further changes to allow diners to bring their own beer or liquor, according to the group’s statement.
So the restaurant association does not support the wine corkage bills, said Melvin Thompson, the group’s senior vice president.
But Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws does back the bills, and it claims the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s survey also found that nearly 31 percent of its members that have a liquor license already allow wine corkage illegally.
Thompson declined to share the complete results of the restaurant association’s survey with the Baltimore Business Journal.
Senators David Brinkley and Ronald Young are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 166, which would allow wine corkage in Frederick County. Fellow Sen. Bobby Zirkin is expected to file similar legislation for Baltimore County.
In Maryland, some restaurants that do not own a liquor license allow patrons to bring their own beer and wine.