ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich broke out bottles of red wine Thursday morning as they headed into the last three frantic days of the 2006 legislative session.
For the last three months, partisan warfare has been the norm as the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly set their strong majority to driving their agenda, often over protests from Ehrlich, a Republican.
But on Thursday, they were all smiles as they raised their glasses to celebrate a compromise that will allow small wineries in the state to deliver their wines directly to retailers and restaurants, a practice that local vintners say is crucial to their survival.
Ehrlich, members of the House of Delegates and the Senate and representatives from the wine industry sipped a 2003 Duet from Woodhall Wine Cellars and a 2003 Marisa from Basignani Winery after lawmakers promised to pass the legislation and have it on the governor’s desk by Monday.
“I think this bill gets the A plus for what you can do when you bring parties together,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, the architect of the Senate legislation. “Every year, we fall in love with a bill, and this was it.”
Currently, Maryland wineries are allowed to sell their wines without a wholesaler while wineries outside the state are not. But a recent decision by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer is due to end that distinction June 1, and require all wineries to go through a distributor.
Schaefer’s decision came in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down laws in New York and Michigan that favored in-state wineries, as well as a lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania vintner alleging that the Maryland law is unconstitutional.
Going through a wholesaler instead of distributing themselves could mean the difference between profit and loss for the smaller of Maryland’s 22 wineries. Thus the need for the legislation that was being celebrated Thursday.
The compromise would treat out-of-state wineries with less than 27,500 gallons of annual production the same as small Maryland wineries — both would be allowed to sell directly to Maryland retailers.
Albert M. Copp, president of Woodhall Wine Cellars in Parkton, delivers in his van much of 10,000 gallons of wine he produces annually.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the compromise. “The wholesalers came to the table with some great ideas.”
Lawmakers also praised the compromise, which lowered the maximum annual production for small wineries in the bill from 40,000 gallons to the current 27,500.
“This is not partisan, it’s not political, but it does have a wide range of economic interests,” Ehrlich said. “I’m not going to be part of a bill that holds one economic interest over another.”
Delegate Virginia P. Clagett, D-Anne Arundel, called the bill, which she crafted in the House, “pro-agriculture, pro-small business and pro-wineries all rolled into one.”
“A week ago, I didn’t think we would have a compromise,” Middleton said. “(The wholesalers) saw the writing on the wall and put their best thinking caps on.” In 2005, sales of Maryland wine totaled 161,782 gallons, or roughly $8.2 million. Of that, almost 21,000 gallons was sold by wineries directly to retailers.