- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

Maryland wineries and restaurants say the two pieces of legislation Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to sign are good for their businesses and their customers.

Mr. Ehrlich said Thursday he plans to sign two bills: one that will continue to allow Maryland wineries to sell directly to restaurants and retailers, and the other that would allow diners to take home leftover wine.

Maryland law has allowed in-state wineries to sell directly to retailers and restaurants but prohibited out-of-state vintners from doing so. A lawsuit accused the state of violating the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause and led the state comptroller to rule in February that wineries must use distributors or wholesalers as of June 1.

The new legislation allows wineries that produce up to 27,500 gallons of wine to deal directly with restaurants.

“It would have been catastrophic [if the legislation wasn’t passed],” said Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., and governmental affairs director at the Maryland Wine Association. “With wineries in the startup phase, every dollar counts. They need to keep the margin they would have given to a distributor.”

Managers at startup wineries learn a lot from visiting restaurants and retailers, Mr. Deford said. If they can’t sell their product, they hear the reasons why and learn what to change. If they have to go through a distributor, they blame the middle man.

“We feel very fortunate to work out what we did,” said Mr. Deford, whose 61-year-old winery has been using a distributor for 26 years. “It’s a good thing to let wineries go out and learn about the market firsthand.”

About 11 million gallons of wine are consumed in Maryland annually, and only 1.5 percent of that wine is made in the state.

Rusty Romo, an Annapolis restaurant owner who buys from wineries in Maryland, California, New Zealand and Spain, among other places, agreed that the legislation helps smaller vintners.

“It helps guys just getting started and struggling who need to be competitive and get their wines to the consumer with minimal overhead,” said Mr. Romo, who owns Harry Browne’s Restaurant on State Circle.

Restaurant owners expect an increase in wine sales from the other piece of legislation Mr. Ehrlich said he plans to sign, which allows diners to take home leftover wine.

Mr. Romo said he expects his wine sales to increase as much as 25 percent.

“It’s definitely going to have an impact,” he said. “We have a lot of business travelers who, even though we offer a half-bottle, buy a full bottle and leave half of it on the table.

“It allows people who wouldn’t buy a bottle of wine to buy it and drink the leftovers the next night, hopefully with the leftovers from the restaurant,” Mr. Romo said.

Proponents of the bill say it may stop diners from consuming too much wine at the restaurant before driving home.

“I think it will encourage more responsible and reasonable behavior than the current situation,” said Tony Foreman, president of the Charleston Group, which runs Pazo, Charleston, Petit Louis Bistro restaurants and Bin 604 Wine Sellers shop. Mr. Foreman thinks diners will opt to finish their bottle of wine the next day if they can take it home.

Mr. Foreman said he expects a slight uptick in sales when the law goes into effect.

• Contact Jen Haberkorn at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-4836.

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