While it’s legal for people over 21 to drink alcohol, we all know that your ability to buy it depends on where you live. And when you live in a metro region that includes three jurisdictions (plus county-specific regulations), you can sometimes forget that the rules are different a few miles away. Washington, DC is wide open for ordering wine online from wineries and retailers, as long as you stay below the monthly limit. Wineries and retailers can ship to Virginia, although it’s not as easy for retailers. And Maryland has only recently cracked open the door of the internet age where wine’s concerned. But not without sturm und drang, and not without attempts at back-pedalling, either.
Last week I was excited to read about a new bill before the Maryland legislature, HB 1366. Introduced by Delegate Ben Barnes (D, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties), the bill would allow retailers like First Vine to obtain direct shipping permits to sell and ship wine directly to customers living in Maryland.
Currently only wineries — defined as entities that have a wine manufacturer’s permit from the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department — can get a Maryland direct shipping permit. Since the law allowing direct shipping from wineries passed in 2011, more than 600 U.S. wineries signed up, giving Maryland consumers access to many wines that weren’t for sale in their local wine shops.
Still, that access is only to wines made in the U.S. Any non-U.S. wine still has to be purchased from retailers in Maryland, who in turn have to have purchased the wine from Maryland distributors. If out-of-state retailers were allowed to ship to Maryland, Maryland customers would be able to receive wines from all over the world by ordering online.
The direct shipping bill that passed two years ago included retailers when it was first introduced, but the retailer provision was stripped out, ostensibly to protect mom-and-pop Maryland retailers from lower prices available through out-of-state retailers online. There was no evidence this would happen. In fact, the Maryland Comptrollers’ office released a study examining why customers buy wine online and concluded that it’s primarily to buy wines they can’t get within their state and that price is a much smaller consideration. Still, that was enough to give cover for legislators who wanted to cut retailers out of the bill. (In his Terroirist wine blog, David White has a nice summary of how this all went down.)
So what has changed? In December 2012, the Comptroller’s office issued another wine shipping report, on the impact of wine shipping into the state. Shipments from out-of-state wineries accounted for just one-third of one percent of all wine sales in Maryland in 2012 by volume. Yet the shipping program brought in almost $700,000 in permit fees and sales tax, far exceeding the start-up costs of the permitting program. No doubt Delegate Barnes hopes this is a big incentive for his colleagues to support adding out-of-state retailers into the mix.
In return for any loss of revenue from winery shipping (not quantified by anyone at this point, if it exists) and potentially allowing out-of-state retailers to ship into Maryland, HB 1366 also contains incentives for Maryland retailers, including allowing them to ship to customers inside Maryland and in other states. A ruling by the state Attorney General’s office when the issue of retailer shipping first came up concluded that Maryland law prohibited wine retailers from shipping to customers anywhere, either in Maryland or other jurisdictions. (That seems bizarre, because it’s usually the state the recipient lives in that determines how they get there wine and from where. But so far, Maryland wine retailers haven’t been able to ship at all. This is a shame, because the state has some great specialty wine shops.)
The bill also sets up a mechanism for consumers to gain more wine and beer buying opportunities through licenses for chain store sales of wine and beer (such as for supermarkets, convenience stores, club stores). Chain stores currently can’t sell beer and wine in the state. The chain license fees are high, but should be compensated by increased buying power leading to lower prices from distributors. “Chains” are defined in the bill as having five or more outlets in the state, and this creates an option for small chains of four or fewer stores to operate by getting the cheaper single-business licenses for each outlet, while still potentially benefitting from the economies of scale of combined ordering.
But just when it looks like things are moving forward, there’s a step back. In this case, a giant step. HB 1420 was introduced on February 18 by Delegate Charles Barkley (D, Montgomery County). The bill would require any winery with a shipping permit to receive wine orders for shipment to Maryland directly and only from the customer in Maryland, whether online, by phone, fax, or snail mail.
This doesn’t sound like much, but in reality it’s huge. Many small wineries don’t have the staff or resources to do large-scale marketing, so they rely on third-party marketer/sales companies.
For wine, the big players are companies like Lot 18 and the recently-formed Amazon wine program. Here’s how it works — a winery agrees to market its wines through one of these marketing sites, say it’s Lot 18. The customer orders and pays for the wine on the Lot 18 website. Lot 18 never takes possession of the wine, but markets it and brokers the transaction on the winery’s behalf. Lot 18 transmits the order to the winery, which is responsible for packing the order up and getting it ready to be shipped by common carrier (usually UPS or Fedex). Once the transaction is complete and any customer return period has passed, Lot 18 pays the winery for the wine, minus a small transaction fee. The winery is still required to get a Maryland direct shipper’s permit.
Clearly Lot 18 or Amazon’s wine program has a bigger reach than any small winery could hope to achieve on its own. Not only that, but since a company like Amazon gets very cheap shipping rates from common carriers (especially compared to a winery that doesn’t ship very much wine), customers benefit from lower prices for shipping than they’d otherwise be able to get.
And it’s not just small wineries that would be impacted. Even a larger winery that doesn’t use third-party marketers might decide to make a discount offer through deal sites like LivingSocial or Groupon. But that offer couldn’t be available to Maryland customers even if the winery had a Maryland direct shipping permit, because the order would go through the deal organization to the winery.
This doesn’t make sense to me because I’m not sure what exactly HB 1420 is designed to protect. The Comptroller’s report doesn’t say how many sales might have come through third-party marketers, nor whether third-party marketer sales have created any particular problems for Maryland consumers. And the bill doesn’t prevent Maryland wineries from signing up with third-party marketers, so if there are problems with the system, Delegate Barkley and any other legislators voting for HB 1420 don’t appear to be concerned that people in other states ordering Maryland wine through those channels won’t get the same protections, whatever they might be.
It also makes me think that even if retailer direct shipping passes this year, it won’t necessarily be secure in the future. It’s likely that no one was really worried about direct shipping from wineries being restricted after it was allowed in 2011, but it’s clear that attempts to chip away at direct shipping have started and will no doubt continue.
Marylanders have to be vigilant to protect their right to buy wine online. It’s not always easy for consumers to understand what’s going on, even in two-page bills like HB 1420. Luckily, they have a strong ally. Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws is a great clearinghouse for information on alcohol-related legislation in the state, and is working to make consumers’ voices heard along with the alcohol industry’s access to legislators. You can sign up for e-mail updates and action alerts on their website, which also has helpful hints on contacting your legislators and participating in lobby day efforts.
Note: I telephoned Delegate Barkley’s office to ask about HB 1420, and also contacted Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association to ask about the organization’s opposition to HB 1366, but hadn’t heard back by the time I had to publish this post. I’ll write an update if I get to speak to anyone about either bill.
Although most of the recipes I post in this blog aren’t for desserts, I love to bake. Cy’s birthday is in February, and for 14 birthdays I have asked him what kind of cake he’d like to have. He started with a flourless chocolate cake in 2000, and he occasionally asks for old standbys like the Red Velvet cake we had one year. But generally he suggests a flavor, or a combination of flavors.
I’m not an intuitive tinkerer with baking recipes, because I know too many of the ways things can go badly, maddeningly wrong when you change ingredients by even small amounts. So I generally try to combine elements of existing recipes from bakers whose recipes I trust. Sometimes I can find exactly the elements I’m looking for, like when Cy asked for spice cake with additional flavors of pineapple and cherry, so he got a mild spice cake layered with sour cherry and pineapple butter-cream frostings. Sometimes I can make additions to the recipe that I know will work right away, like the year Cy asked for coconut cream pie flavors. This led to a yellow cake with lots of toasted coconut in it and coconut cream pie filling between the layers, along with a cream cheese frosting made with a bunch of the coconut fat from cans of coconut milk (lots of work, but it was delicious and got me into the semi-finals of a coconut cake competition).
This year, Cy asked for ginger. Not like gingerbread, but a cake with ginger flavors. That meant having grated fresh ginger, dried ginger, and candied ginger (either in syrup or crystallized) to work with. Looking at recipes for things from ginger pound cakes to scones I thought a white cake, made with egg whites instead of whole eggs, would make it easier for ginger flavor to come through. I also found that one cookbook author, Maida Heatter, always adds ground white pepper with ground ginger, so I figured that couldn’t hurt. Finely-grated fresh ginger is pungent but mellows out with cooking and also in combination with dairy like butter and milk.
Looking for ginger-flavored frostings, I came across an Ina Garten recipe for mascarpone icing with crystallized ginger. I liked the idea of not having butter in the frosting. I tinkered with the proportions a bit (Ina’s recipes are always too sweet for my taste) and decided to add some grated fresh ginger to give the frosting more ginger flavor, almond extract (because almond and ginger taste great together), plus a little grated lemon zest to brighten it up. I have to channel Ina a little bit here and say it’s worth buying good mascarpone for the cake. You can find Vermont Butter and Cheese mascarpone at many grocery stores and it’s excellent. Or look for one imported from Italy in a specialty shop, but stay away from the generally gummy domestic supermarket varieties — they may work for cooking but not when mascarpone’s the main ingredient.
So here’s Cy’s 2013 birthday cake. I think it turned out pretty well. We served it with champagne, of course — Champagne Bernard Mante Brut Grande Reserve ($38), and the yeast of the champagne was a great match for the ginger flavor. You know I don’t necessarily believe in “ultimate pairings,” but this one was unexpectedly good. Yet another thing to celebrate!
Serves 12 to 16
2 cups all-purpose flour (measure the flour by stirring up the flour in the bag, then spoon it into a dry-measure cup and sweep the excess off the top with a knife)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper (optional, but I like it)
12 tablespoons (one and a half sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup egg whites (usually 6 large egg whites), at room temperature
3/4 cup milk, at room temperature
1 tablespoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
16 ounces (or 500 grams) good mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2-1/2 cups sifted confectioners sugar (sift into the dry-measure cups and level off with a knife)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 -2 tablespoons milk or cream, if needed
1/2 cup finely diced crystallized ginger (the dry kind. Unfortunately, you have to dice this up by hand. If you try to use the food processor you’ll probably end up with mush or a big, sticky mass.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9-inch cake pans, fit the bottoms with parchment paper, then grease the paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and granulated sugar together. Start on low speed, and increase to medium, beating for about 5 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides occasionally. The mixture will lighten in color and will get a little fluffy. Beat in the grated fresh ginger and the vanilla extract.
While the butter and sugar are beating, mix the flour, baking powder, salt, powdered ginger, and ground white pepper in a small bowl. (If you don’t have white pepper just leave it out, but don’t use ground black pepper.) In a large measuring cup with a spout, whisk the milk and egg whites together and set aside.
With the mixer on low speed, beat in a quarter of the flour mixture until it’s just barely combined, then a third of the milk/egg white mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl. Start it up again on low, and alternate adding flour and milk, beginning and ending with the flour. Scrape down the bowl and the beater and stir the batter with a spatula to make sure it’s all mixed. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of each layer comes out clean (start checking after 25 minutes). Cool the cake layers in the pans for 5 minutes, then tip them out onto cooling racks. Remove the parchment paper, then set them right-side-up to cool completely.
For the frosting, beat all the ingredients together except the crystallized ginger on low speed, until the confectioners sugar is mixed in. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds or so. If the frosting seems very stiff, beat in a little milk or cream to thin it out so you can spread it. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the crystallized ginger, and stir the rest into the frosting.
Frost the cake, then sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of diced crystallized ginger on top.