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Restaurant Association of Maryland and Consumer Advocates in Baltimore Area
at Odds Over Corkage Law Claiming High-end Restaurant Owners Want the Option

By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 01, 2011--Consumer advocates pleaded with lawmakers Monday to let customers bring their own bottles of wine to restaurants in Baltimore City and three other counties, saying the state's high-end eateries want to extend the option to their clienteles.

But opponents of the legislation, including the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the liquor lobby, argued Monday before the House Economic Matters Committee that the arrangement would eat into restaurant profits and generate uncertainty about liability when consumers drink too much.

Restaurants opting to participate could charge up to $25 in corkage fees to customers who bring their own wine. In addition to Baltimore, the General Assembly is considering allowing corkage in Frederick, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Advocates said they hope to eventually lift the probation statewide.

The fight is pitting familiar foes against one another: The consumer group Maryland for Better Beer and Wine Laws supports corkage but is up against the state's powerful liquor lobby. Those opposing interests locked horns last session over whether Maryland should accept wine by mail, though this year there appears to be a compromise on that issue.

The proposed corkage measures would not require any restaurants to change their policies and allow customers to bring wine from home, though opponents said that reluctant restaurant owners would feel compelled to do so to remain competitive.

Melvin R. Thompson, senior vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said establishments opting not to allow corkage would "risk alienating customers."

In a survey his group conducted, it found 63 percent of responding restaurant owners opposed corkage. Thompson declined to share a geographical breakdown of the data with the committee and The Baltimore Sun, saying he needed permission from his organization to do so.

Del. Kelly M. Schultz, a Frederick County Republican, argued that government should stay out of the restaurant business. "The businesses are allowed to make business decisions," she said.

Virginia's legislature voted this year to allow restaurants to charge corkage. Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia also permit the arrangement.

Both sides found restaurant owners to support their views.

"I paid a lot of money to have a [liquor] license," said Alice March, who owns the Knotty Pine Inn, a tavern on South Conkling Street in Baltimore.

She said her business model depends on the steep margins earned from alcohol sales. "I wonder if the coffee shop down the street would mind if I bring in my own coffee?"

But Hilda Staples, a co-owner of Frederick County's acclaimed Volt, said their clientele includes foodies who frequently want to drink hard-to-obtain wines with their meals.

"We are a hospitality industry," Staples said. She said that if her customers were allowed to bring their own bottle they'd probably finish that and "purchase five more."

Del. Joseph J. Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, wondered where the advocates would stop.

"Would you object if someone said, 'Gee, I'm going to bring my six-pack in?' 'Gee, I had a great bottle of scotch. Can I bring my own scotch?' "

The bills' fates are unclear: The chairs of the Senate and House committees have both expressed skepticism about the measures.


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