Food & Drink

How a Maryland Winery Sparked Legislative Change in Alcohol Delivery

“We thought we were geniuses, but really we were just breaking the law.”

Old Westminster Winery
Courtesy of Old Westminster Winery

When Drew Baker and his two sisters, Ashli Johnson and Lisa Hinton, put up an Instagram post last Monday, they had no idea what they were setting in motion.

The siblings co-own Old Westminster Winery in Western Maryland and, like so many food and drink producers around the world, they are worried about their business after being forced to close their tasting room and watching wholesale dollars rapidly decline. 

“Right now, people aren’t leaving their houses for good reason and getting practically everything delivered to them,” Baker says. “We envisioned this old-school milk man model where we take the order over the phone and we bring the wine bottles to doorstep the next day.”

Within an hour of the post being live, Baker got a text from Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, asking how exactly they would accomplish home delivery of alcohol in a state where that practice is illegal. While the winery had long been shipping bottles using FedEx, its owners didn’t realize that you, in fact, need that third party under the current law. (Delivery with providers like FedEx is not realistic right now because of costs and high demand.)

“The reason we were the first winery to ever offer direct home delivery is because you’re not allowed to in the state of Maryland,” Baker says with a laugh. “We thought we were geniuses, but really we were just breaking the law.” 

But Old Westminster wasn’t the only producer in the state with this conundrum. Atticks was fielding phone calls from breweries, distilleries, and other wineries who all wanted to keep their businesses afloat with delivery, but obviously keep things on the up and up.

“Small businesses are facing financial ruin, their life savings are being wiped out, and they are having to lay off employees -- all due to something completely beyond their control,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said in a statement. “Policymakers need to use every tool in the toolbox -- and fashion new ones -- to help these businesses in their time of need.”

Along with Franchot, Atticks and industry lobbyists Brad Rifkin and Pat Roddy drafted language to send to the governor for consideration. Using the idea that local liquor stores with licenses have the ability to deliver, they applied that same principle to producers. Within 48 hours, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed the executive order.

“This is truly unprecedented,” Atticks says of the lightning-fast turnaround. “An executive order is much different than permanent legislation and the governor would only have authority like this in a time of an emergency.”

The order states that -- during this state of emergency -- restaurants, bars, breweries, wineries, and distilleries can deliver sealed products off-premises “to protect the public health, welfare, and safety” of people that might otherwise leave the house to purchase alcohol. 

“This is something that is needed to keep our producers afloat, just as it is with restaurants to allow takeout,” Atticks says. “The bottom line of every conversation that we’ve been having is this is what they need to survive. These are incredibly difficult conversations to be having.”

For Old Westminster, this has been an idea they’ve been tooling around with for a while, but it never crept up to the top of the priority list until now.

“Producers like us right now are having to get so creative to turn entire business models on their head,” Baker says. “This could be a gamechanger for the whole industry. With whatever happens, people are going to be weary of crowds for a while, so being able to get goods like these delivered to your door by trained professionals just seems to be part of the future.”

Of course, enacting something like this permanently is a different story in a state like Maryland, whose alcohol laws are “uniquely restrictive,” Atticks says.

But, at least for now, Marylanders can get that bottle of rosé, a local IPA, or a bottled whiskey cocktail delivered to their doorstep. Additionally, Old Westminster is donating wine bottles to out-of-work service industry members and will also take any canned goods left out and donate them to a local food bank. 

“There was so much groundwork going on before we even stepped in,” Baker said. “But we caused a little conundrum and maybe helped in some small way. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to get folks what they need in these really strange times.”

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Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor for Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.