Debate Over Direct Wine Shipping Causing Sour Grapes
By Liam Farrell
Wine connoisseurs could get a reason to toast the General Assembly this session, but the victory could have a sour aftertaste.
Although there is plenty of support in both chambers this year to allow the direct shipment of wine to Maryland consumers, disagreements remain over how broad the legislation should be.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, the chairwoman of the Senate committee considering that chamber's bill, said Thursday the final legislation will likely allow consumers to get products only from wineries - not retailers.
She said this stemmed from disagreements among the legislation's stakeholders, a shortage of other states that include retailers in such laws, and concerns about economic impact.
"Retailers were always off the table," Conway said. "Maybe it doesn't have an adverse impact, but I don't see a clear picture."
The senator, who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee, has been a powerful voice in the ongoing debate over whether to open the door for direct wine shipping to customers.
Excluding retailers would be unwelcome news for many of the bill's proponents, who feel this would severely curtail availability and selection.
"The whole point … is to give access to consumers," said Adam Borden, the president of the advocacy group Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws. Without including retailers, the legislation wouldn't "fundamentally address the issue."
Wine lovers have had ups and downs in the last few sessions. Last year saw the passage of the Maryland Winery Modernization Act, which clarified arcane and conflicting statutes by creating a single statewide license for wineries, allowing them to sell at farmers' markets, and ending restrictions, such as requiring tables and chairs for customers.
Direct shipping legislation, however, has proved much harder to pass. Last year's House version of the bill was sponsored by 80 legislators, from all parts of the political spectrum, but still died.
As originally written, this year's bill would charge $100 for a direct wine shipper's permit available to in-state and out-of-state retailers, among others. A "common carrier" permit would cost $100 and be used to deliver wine from inside or outside the state to a Maryland consumer for personal use.
Wine shippers would have to report their activities to the state Comptroller's Office as well as file quarterly tax returns and pay sales and excise taxes. Wine delivery would require the recipient to show photo identification proving he or she is at least 21 years old.
The legislation is supported by majorities in both chambers, with 84 House sponsors and 32 Senate sponsors.
Yet, retailers are continuing to flex their political muscle on the issue. They fear allowing out-of-state retailers into Maryland would cannibalize their business, while just allowing in-state retailers to ship wine could open up legal problems.
Such issues could create regulatory complications, said J. Steven Wise, a lobbyist representing the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association.
"You are opening the door to a lot of entities you don't have control over," Wise said.
Even retailers not worried about economic competition from shipping have concerns about the bill. Chuck Ferrar, a former county councilman and owner of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, said his main concern is preventing people from shipping products already sold in Maryland.
"If (a wine) is not sold in Maryland, they should be able to get it," he said.
Borden questioned whether this could be tracked; wines might be available only in distant counties or in very limited supply.
"The practical implications of doing that start to become overwhelming," he said.
Carter said a meeting will be held early next week to try and hammer out some of the disagreements.