Wine Bill Proposed for Local Restaurants
By Meg Tully
January 28, 2011
ANNAPOLIS -- The Frederick County delegation of state lawmakers is seeking approval on a bill that would allow patrons to bring their own bottles of wine into restaurants.
The bill would give restaurants the choice of whether to practice "corkage," where patrons bring a bottle of wine and the restaurant charges a fee to serve it. Currently, only restaurants without a liquor license are permitted to allow patrons to bring wine.
Although the bill has the support of some high-profile Frederick restaurants, the Maryland Restaurant Association opposes it.
"While there is currently little consumer demand for the practice, we believe that the publicity surrounding such a law change would encourage more customers to bring their own bottles," the association wrote in a position statement.
The association contends restaurants fear wine sales will decrease, will be confused about serving control and regulatory compliance, and customers will object if some establishments do not want to offer corkage.
A survey of association members with liquor licenses found 63 percent oppose corkage, 19 percent support it and 13 percent are undecided.
Melvin Thompson, senior vice president for government affairs and public policy at the association, said the organization sent out the survey because some of its members did support the corkage proposal and they wanted to find out what the general consensus was. They sent it to 450 members and got 95 responses.
Of the 63 percent who opposed it, 57 percent indicated they would oppose it even if it were optional and left to the discretion of restaurant owners. The bill is currently written that way, giving the choice to owners.
"It's putting them in a difficult position with their customers that they don't want to be in," Thompson said, adding the survey also showed about 75 percent of restaurants reported their patrons rarely or never ask to bring bottles of wine.
"We were left with no chance to oppose it, simply because we got the message loud and clear from our members," Thompson said.
In Frederick, three restaurants have signed on in support of the practice -- Volt, Monocacy Crossing and Danielle's Restaurant.
Frederick chef Bryan Voltaggio, who co-owns Volt on North Market Street with Hilda Staples, is one of the leading proponents of the practice. He has seen it work in Washington and said it benefits high-end restaurants whose patrons want to bring in a special bottle of wine from their collections, or want to hold a wine club gathering.
Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, which is advocating for the legislation, said the restaurant association survey represents only a small percentage of businesses that could benefit from it. There are 4,700 restaurant and tavern licensees statewide, he said.
"We're very glad for Bryan and Hilda wanting to make this an issue that has become a cause among other independent fine-dining establishments," Borden said. "It's certainly helping to give the right tools to independent restaurateurs if they want to make that decision."
His organization is seeking to have legislation introduced in Baltimore city, Baltimore County, Montgomery County and Prince George's County, as well as in Frederick.
Frederick County's state lawmakers have unanimously supported the bill, saying it would be good for both consumers and the wine industry.
Delegate Kelly Schulz, a Frederick County Republican, serves on the House Economic Matters Committee, which will consider the legislation.
"Having someone come in to an already licensed facility with their own bottle of wine, at this point in time, I have not seen where it would be a detriment to the restaurants," Schulz said.
She plans to work to help answer questions about what would happen if a restaurant wanted to cut off someone who'd had too much to drink, or how they would need to make sure underage drinkers were not being served.
Since the legislation applies only to Frederick County, Schulz said she thinks the General Assembly will treat it as a local bill. Local bills are typically passed if the county's delegation supports them.