By Len Foxwell
The writer is an Annapolis-based communications consultant. He previously served as chief of staff to the comptroller of Maryland and was the first chair of the Maryland Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.
Several years ago, I was loitering outside a committee hearing room with one of the most influential lobbyists in the alcohol beverage industry.
Knowing we were both there for a bill that would have authorized wineries across the country to ship their products directly to Maryland consumers, I asked the gentleman to predict the outcome.
“We’ll kill it because we can,” he said, nonchalantly. “This would be the end of the mom-and-pops,” he said, using industry vernacular for local, independent package stores. “And it would make it easier for kids to get their hands on alcohol.”
The lobbyist proved prescient. For a while, at least. The industry successfully engineered the defeat of direct shipment legislation during that session. And the next. Eventually, however, that same lobbyist and his colleagues came to the table with other stakeholders and worked out a bill everyone could live with.
Why the eventual change of heart? Because progress is inevitable. So are ideas that are wildly popular with the public — this being a democracy with quadrennial elections and all.
To the surprise of no one, the direct shipment of wine did not “ruin the mom and pops.” Nor did Maryland bear witness to hordes of ravenous teenagers tearing into deliveries of Chateau Margaux. Rather, consumers were satisfied, small businesses adapted, and the republic survived.
Which brings us to the legalization of beer and wine sales in Maryland grocery stores. It is an eminently sensible policy that has been exhaustively vetted — 47 states already allow it for beer and 40 states permit it for wine. It is a policy that is wildly popular — a 2021 poll revealed that in this age of polarization, when folks are hard-pressed to agree on anything of note, nearly 80% of Marylanders believe grocery stores should be allowed to sell their favorite beers and wines.
Perhaps most important, it is an idea that is distinctly of the moment. It is not simply the “mom-and-pops” for whom survival is an open question. In an age when one can order both groceries and dinner with the same click of a button, all bricks-and-mortar retailers must offer more choices, better products and greater convenience to remain profitable.
Nevertheless, on what is known today as a “no-brainer,” Maryland — one of the most progressive, best-educated and tech-savvy states in the union — remains defiantly planted in the past and oddly out-of-sync with its own residents. To date, the politically wired alcohol lobby has been able to forestall the inevitable, referencing the same arguments that were used a decade ago to delay the direct shipment of wine. It will kill the mom-and-pops, we have been told. It will hurt the children, they say, channeling the affected concern of the Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy.
The most obvious repudiation of these insubstantial arguments can be found in Talbot County, a vibrant vacation and retirement destination for affluent families along the east coast. Due to an idiosyncrasy within its county charter, Talbot County, alone among Maryland jurisdictions, permits its grocery stores to sell beer and wine.
To nobody’s surprise, none of these doomsday scenarios have even come close to materializing. Longtime, venerable package stores continue to sell beer, wine, and spirits within a two-minute drive of grocery stores. The same customer who may pick up a sixpack of Michelob Ultra at the grocery store as a matter of sheer convenience will subsequently visit their favorite package store for a newly released hazy New England IPA…or their favorite vodka, bourbon or rye.
Over 20 years of living in Talbot County, I never saw a single adolescent or teen surreptitiously leaving the local Giant or Harris Teeter with ill-gained pilsners and chardonnay bottles under their coats. It’s almost as if the modern safeguards designed to minimize theft — such as security scanners and electronic barcodes — are also good at keeping Cupcake prosecco out of the hands of high schoolers.
Imagine the end of an exceedingly long day. An endless whir of texts, e-mails and Zoom meetings, interspersed with doctor’s appointments, car rider lines and soccer practice. And a trip to the grocery store still awaits. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pick up a bottle of wine or some cold beer to enjoy when that long day ends?
It is time we stopped wishing for it and it’s time for our lawmakers to make it happen. Progress always wins — and in the case of beer and wine sales in grocery stores, so would Maryland consumers.