Our Say: Wine-Shipping Law Reform Shouldn't Stop Halfway
Years of relentless attempts to allow out-of-state wine shipments into Maryland appear to have finally gotten the legislature to the point of changing this state's draconian alcohol laws.
Supporters of bills in both houses of the General Assembly say they have enough sponsors and momentum to finally get rid of rules that make it a felony to ship wine in or out of Maryland. The law has hobbled Maryland wineries, which have been prohibited from shipping their products to consumers in other states. Meanwhile, Maryland consumers have been unable to ship home wines they have discovered while touring wine states like California.
But consumers should not pop any champagne corks yet. Most likely, any successful bill will put limits on who can ship wine.
The liquor lobby's stranglehold on legislators has protected Maryland's anti-consumer shipping laws for decades, even after courts struck down such bans in other states. Legislators have modified the law to placate critics, but consumers are still prevented from shipping their favorite wines home.
In December, State Comptroller Peter Franchot issued a report that finally broke through the liquor lobby's worn-out rhetoric. It refutes most of the arguments used against wine shipping, particularly that shipments from out-of-state wine producers would rob Maryland retailers of a major part of their business.
The report echoed what critics of the law have been saying all along, and prodded legislators to move cautiously to modernize the law.
The liquor lobby has been relatively silent since the report was released. For one thing, it doesn't want to offend the comptroller, who regulates the liquor industry. But the lobby also may be tacitly conceding that its feeble arguments no longer resonate with legislators - even ones the lobbyists have plied with campaign contributions for years.
But we expect those lobbyists to still be at work - guiding legislators to protect their clients from harm without regard to consumers. Negotiations are likely to produce a watered-down version of what consumers really want.
Retailers are not as concerned about shipments from wineries outside Maryland as they are about those from retailers in other states. After all, shipping home a case of wine is expensive - and isn't worth it if the wine is common enough to be purchased for less at a local store. Instead, local retailer opposition is focused on West Coast retailers - like operators of wine-of-the-month clubs - who under the new law would be able to ship wine to Maryland consumers. Despite the popularity of wine clubs, they may be excluded from any reform effort.
Perhaps consumers will be satisfied with such an incomplete breakthrough - but we aren't. Any law that separates the wine producer from the wine retailer is discriminatory. Out-of-state retailers are no more a threat to local trade then out-of-state wine producers. Fine wine stores in Maryland would also like to ship wines to other states.
We're glad to hear change is on the way, but it shouldn't stop halfway.