Modernize Wine Law
December 01, 2010
Prohibition did not create the mob. But it vastly expanded its influence by giving it a monopoly on liquor distribution, similar to the way a small group of wholesalers holds consumers hostage in this state.
That is why it is so funny to listen to liquor lobbyists in the state decry proposed legislation to allow direct shipments of wine to Maryland as ushering in lawlessness.
Two years ago J. Steven Wise, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, said a bill then under consideration would allow out-of-state retailers -- such as "Tony Soprano Liquors in upstate New York" (in reference to the
fictitious HBO mobster) to sell liquor to Maryland residents. "You'll just open the floodgates," he added.
More recently he told another paper that changing the rules means "No Maryland-based person
who can be easily disciplined is a part of the transaction."
Wise and other opponents of direct shipments have said they would make it easier for underage
residents to drink alcohol. First, 37 other states allow direct wine shipments and have prevented
underage drinking by requiring someone 21 or older to accept shipments. Second, teenagers
crave quantity, not expensive, high-quality wines.
The real issue, however, is that the liquor industry wants it to be illegal for everyone but
themselves to reap a profit from alcohol in the state.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes said, "How often have I said to you
that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
In this case, the truth isn't even remotely improbable.
The liquor lobby has enjoyed unprecedented control over the distribution of alcohol in the state
for more than 75 years. For them to voluntarily give up power would be like expecting Speaker
of the House Nancy Pelosi to lobby Democratic members of Congress to overturn the health care
bill before the House reverts to Republicans in January.
But their power needs to end. Consumers deserve the right to buy wine and beer from
out-of-state in the same way they can purchase other goods. And they should stop being
criminalized for bringing more than a couple of bottles over the border on trips to other states.
State winemakers also deserve a level playing field with other winemakers around the country
and the opportunity to sell wine as they see fit, not as a monopoly distribution system says they
must. Selling through a wholesaler costs more money than offering it directly to consumers and
ultimately drives up the price of the product. Since winemakers must use wholesalers to reach a
wider market, the law basically forces them to subsidize someone else's business. Under whose
logic is that fair?
Wholesalers must learn to compete for business in the same way winemakers and businesses
around the world gain customers: by selling a superior product.
Artificially engineering their profits worked for decades. But its time for Maryland's liquor laws to
enter the 21st century. Prohibition-era laws should have no place in Maryland after the 2011
legislative session. It will be a change both parties can raise a toast to.