2017 | Politics

‘Total Wine’ Bill Draws Opposition in Annapolis

Proposed state legislation-subject of recent controversy-would benefit other businesses as well as the major alcohol retailer, supporters say

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Del. Charlie Barkley, front row, center-right, during bill hearings on Monday in front of the House of Delegates' Economic Matters Committee

Screenshot via General Assembly livestream

A bill that would enable business owners in the state to open a second alcohol store in Montgomery County drew opposition during a hearing Monday in Annapolis as one opponent noted the co-owner of the company pursuing the change has said he wasn’t planning to open a store in the county.

Steve Wise, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents alcohol stores, asked the House Economic Matters Committee of the General Assembly to not move forward with the bill, saying it would be a significant change from established state law.

Citing a Bethesda Beat story, Wise noted that David Trone, the founder of Total Wine & More, previously said he wasn’t interested in opening a store in Montgomery County because of the county Department of Liquor Control’s monopoly protections.

“They don’t want to pursue a second store [in the state], we don’t want them to have a second store, and I ask you to vote against it,” Wise said.

However, Charles Washington, Total Wine’s government affairs director, advocated for passage of the bill, noting it would affect all business owners in the state that might want to obtain a second license to sell alcohol in Montgomery County.

“The bill would give us the opportunity to open a store in Montgomery County,” Washington said. “But this bill is not just about us.”

Maryland law allows an individual to hold one Class A license in the state. The regulation was designed to keep small, locally owned alcohol stores protected from the competition of chains. But Del. Charlie Barkley’s bill would allow an individual licensed in the state to receive a second Class A license in Montgomery County only. The bill was discussed Monday as part of the General Assembly’s “Alcohol Day” when dozens of local bills are evaluated that aim to change state alcohol regulations.

The bill is colloquially called the “Total Wine bill” because it would allow brothers David and Robert Trone, who own Total Wine & More, to open new stores in Montgomery County. The brothers already hold licenses in their names for stores in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, preventing them from opening additional Total Wine stores in the state. The Bethesda-based company is the largest retailer of fine wine in the country, with more than 140 superstores in 20 states.

The General Assembly has failed to pass similar legislation in previous years. For this year’s session, Barkley (D-Germantown) submitted the legislation as a local bill and it was approved Feb. 3 by a 16-5 vote by the Montgomery County House delegation, an approval that typically helps lead to a bill’s passage.

Del. Ben Kramer (D-Wheaton) was one of the five who voted against it and he prodded Barkley with questions Monday. He asked whether small alcohol stores supported the bill during a December hearing in Rockville—they did not. He later described Total Wine as the “Walmart” of liquor stores and noted that another bill that Barkley is sponsoring would also allow Total Wine to sell liquor in the county if the company did open a store.

That bill would allow the county’s Department of Liquor Control to contract with privately owned beer and wine stores to sell liquor. Currently, only the 26 county-run liquor stores can sell spirits and other hard alcohol.

Barkley said Monday the so-called “agency store” bill would provide greater access to liquor in the county. Montgomery County has about 0.3 liquor stores per 10,000 people, compared to a state average of 3.02 stores, according to statistics provided by the Distilled Spirits Council. A representative from the council testified in favor of Barkley’s “agency store” bill Monday.

In discussing the bills Monday, Kramer did not mention that he co-owns a commercial building in Cloverly that he leases to the DLC for a retail liquor store. Kramer is expected to collect about $2.7 million from the county under the lease agreement that runs until 2025.

Previous opposition to the “Total Wine” bill also came from the county employee union UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO. Union President Gino Renne earlier this month equated campaign donations accepted by Barkley from the Trone brothers to the ongoing corruption case involving liquor board members in Prince George’s County.

Barkley responded by referring to Renne as a “bully” and noting that it was legal to accept the $12,000 he has received from the Trones.