Corkage Free Dinner Auction + Supermarket Update

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If you missed the opportunity to bid on the corkage-free dinners we’re auctioning off and that we mentioned in our last email, be sure to visit the auction website and bid away.  Great deals can still be found including dinner at Volt Restaurant (Frederick), Jaleo (Bethesda) and one of Chef's Expressions' Wine Dinners held at Gramery Mansion in Baltimore County.

Supermarkets, Chain Stores, What Next?
The passions have been flying on both sides of the debate whether grocery or chain stores should be able to consistently sell alcohol in Maryland.  The element that most frustrates Maryland consumers is the seeming inconsistency across counties: why can the Royal Farms store in Baltimore City or the Giant Foods supermarket in Salisbury sell beer and wine but not my local store?  The McHenry Row Harris Teeter and accompanying wine store teed off the controversy, but the Columbia Wegmans has really ignited the fire.  The Columbia Patch has done a great job covering this issue.  Their first article, “Wine with Your Wegmans? Second-Floor Liquor Store May Be on Tap,” came just before the Howard County Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board hearing on May 1.  Editor Andrew Metcalf covered the hearing in “Proposed Liquor Store Has Wegmans Connections,” reporting that the store would be owned 10% by local attorney Mike Smith and 90% by the husband of Wegmans president, Colleen Wegman.  Smith was quoted as saying, “I think the existing businesses don’t want additional competition.”  According to Metcalf, so many liquor store owners came to testify in opposition – about 100 – that the meeting ran four and a half hours and had to adjourn early because the building had to be closed at 11PM.  Only one Howard County resident came to testify in support of the license.  Judy George of Laurel commented “With the antiquated laws in Maryland, it’s really hard to find great wines and beers.”

The Patch decided to start a poll asking the question “Should Maryland Allow Alcohol Sales in Grocery Stores?”  Acknowledging that this poll is entirely unscientific, those favoring some form of chain or grocery alcohol sales outnumber the opposition about 2-to-1 as of today.  Eric Stein, owner of Decanter Fine Wines and Spirits in Hickory Ridge, was quoted after the Howard County Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board meeting as saying, “The average person doesn't care that much about alcohol sales. But the people involved in the industry want others to follow the rules... If the public wants to change the rules, there should be an outcry to do so.”  Maybe that’s what’s starting …

The Baltimore Sun picked up the story in a series of articles and opinion pieces as well.  Just after the hearing, they ran “Lots Of Opposition, No Decision On Liquor Store At New Wegmans,” profiling Mike Smith and his longstanding beer and wine-making hobby.  A few days later, the paper followed with a piece that really struck at the contortions grocery stores have to go through in order to obtain something available in 35 other states.  “Groceries Seeking Ways Around Wine Sales Ban” discusses how chains like Wegmans have dealt with other states’ restrictions, complying with the letter of the “often conflicting patchwork of local and state laws.”  Chain store sales can often bring economic opportunity to places that need it.  The Sun quotes Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson: “[T]o me, it's an economic development issue. I've got a couple of shopping centers with vacant grocery stores that have moved on. When I talk to grocery stores, … they tell me the modern business plan is, they want to sell beer and wine.”  We were fortunate enough to be contacted by the Sun reporters who included this quote: “Why do package good stores have any greater right to have their business protected than a five and dime? We have a capitalist marketplace. In every other industry, they have to deal with the competition.  The booksellers have to deal with Amazon, Blockbuster has to deal with Netflix. Why do customers have to lose out?”

This sentiment was echoed by the Baltimore Sun editorial board in “Wegmans vs. The Liquor Lobby:”  

[I]t's time for the General Assembly to take up this issue. The legislature has taken small steps in recent years toward alcohol laws that benefit consumers, not the liquor lobby, such as a limited foray into allowing wineries to ship directly to customers in the state and a decision this year to allow the practice of corkage in restaurants that have liquor licenses. Rescinding the prohibition on grocery store sales of alcohol is the next logical step.

One of the Sun’s readers commented that they already drive to the Wegmans in Leesburg, VA to get their beer and wine but they’ll “stop spending the money in Virginia as soon as our local Wegmans has a wine/beer department.” Anther reader replied to comment about his experience in Annapolis before the liquor lobby:

I attended a legislative hearing once where a liquor businessman pleaded with the legislators to keep laws in place to stifle this kind of competition in Maryland because liquor is a dangerous product that needs special attention and protection.  One legislator replied, "Why are you so special?  I run a hazardous waste collection business.  That's a dangerous product too, but … you don't see me begging government to protect me from potential competitors."  The liquor guy had no response.  Their argument is paper thin.

It is definitely confusing that some Maryland chain locations - but not most - have liquor licenses; why it is legal for restaurant chains to hold multiple licenses at the same time seems to defy logic.  The Baltimore County Liquor Board administrator, Mike Mohler, commented on this in “Future of Wegmans Liquor Store in Limbo.”  Mohler “used Olive Garden as an example, noting that a Baltimore County resident is required as the holder of the liquor license, though that person clearly doesn't own the restaurant.”  As to the legality of why chain restaurants can hold multiple licenses, the lobbyist for the packaged goods store owners commented “The law has allowed chain restaurants over the years to hold licenses, and the laws for them are different than they are for package stores.”  But why should they continue to be?

The situation of an out-of-state interest holding partial ownership, even 90%, of a Maryland liquor license is not new, says Mohler.  Calvert Wine, located in the same Hunt Valley shopping complex as a Wegmans, is owned 99% by the husband of Wegmans executive Nicole Wegman.  According to Mike Smith of the Columbia Wegmans wine store, “[e]verything that we've done is consistent with the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Coverage of this issue even went international when the BBC picked up the craziness in “US Alcohol Retailers Find Law Changes Hard to Swallow.”  The article presents both retailers who want to innovate and embrace change such as Schneider’s of Capitol Hill and the opposing viewpoint of the American Beverage Licensees which favors the status quo.  “[I]t's change that benefits the consumer,” says Jon Genderson of Schneider’s.  Perhaps the most encouraging comment from the story comes from Maryland’s own Chuck Ferrar, owner of Annapolis’ Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits.  A progressive, Ferrar testified before the General Assembly in 2009 regarding wine shipping that he “personally as a retailer will probably benefit from this bill.”  Unfortunately, retailer shipping was nixed in the final legislation, much to all of our dismay.  Ferrar is optimistic about chain store sales: “I think it will eventually happen here, that alcohol will be sold in groceries and supermarkets.”

Howard County's Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board will reconvene on June 14 at 5:30PM, three days before the Columbia Wegmans will hold its grand opening.  The Hearing Board will only be accepting testimony from those already registered but who did not testify at the last hearing.

Tastefully yours,

Adam Borden
Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws
4315 Underwood Road
Baltimore, MD 21218
Tel: (443) 570-8102

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