Proposed Carry-In Wine Concept Meets Resistance

OCEAN CITY – A proposed change in state law to allow diners in many jurisdictions to bring their own bottles of wine into licensed establishments appears to be gaining some momentum, but the state’s largest restaurant association remains staunchly opposed to the revised policy.

For years, many restaurants across the state, including many in the resort area, allowed diners to bring their own bottles of wine to dinner, but a change in state law a few years back prohibited the practice. Typically, diners would bring in a bottle of wine for a special occasion, or a particular bottle or vintage that wasn’t included on the establishment’s wine list.

The restaurants would often charge diners who brought their own bottles into the establishment a nominal corkage fee to help offset the loss of a sale of its own wine offerings, and to some degree the cost of its own employees handling, opening and serving the wine, but the practice was prohibited a few years back by state lawmakers.

However, a handful of bills have been introduced in the current General Assembly session, which, if passed, would allow diners to bring their own bottles of wine into licensed establishments under certain circumstances. The intent is to level the playing field for establishments bordering other jurisdictions where the practice is allowed, but it could have implications all over the state.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) this week released a formal position statement in strong opposition to the proposed law change, citing a survey of its members, and the general public, that points to little demand for restoring the archaic custom.

“The survey shows that the majority of our restaurants do not want it, and the majority of our customers are not asking for it,” the RAM statement reads. “The proposed wine corkage legislation seems to be more of a solution in search of a problem.”

According to RAM, industry opposition to the idea was a lot stronger than the association anticipated. For example, 63 percent of the member restaurants surveyed opposed the wine corkage legislation, while 19 percent supported it and 13 percent were unsure.

Nearly 75 percent said customers “never” or “rarely” ask to bring in their own wine, while about 23 percent ask “occasionally” and only 3 percent said their customers ask to bring in their own wine “often.”

RAM officials oppose the proposed legislation for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the potential loss of sales for the license holders. In addition, RAM officials fear allowing customers to bring in their own bottles of wine could lead to similar laws on other spirits.

“Our member restaurants fear that, as a result, the law change will decrease wine and beverage sales, create confusion about serving control and regulatory compliance, create potential customer relations issues for restaurants that choose to continue prohibiting the practice despite the law change, and lead to future law changes allowing customers to bring in other alcoholic beverages,” the RAM statement reads. “Moreover, restaurants pay expensive liquor license fees and many believe that wine corkage will diminish the value of liquor licenses.”

While the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association has not formed a formal position on the issue, Executive Director Susan Jones said this week the organization would likely follow RAM’s lead.

“I’m fairly certain this isn’t something we would support,” she said. “It just seems to go against the grain of good business practices. Clearly, it would hurt wine sales in the restaurants, and I’m quite certain our members wouldn’t be in favor of anything that would allow sales to go out the door.”