The sign for Sangria in Mount Vernon. "Sangria" is written in pink lettering, with the "S" pouring into a wine glass that serves as the "I" in "Sangria."
The sign for Sangria in Mount Vernon. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Despite concerns from the Mount Vernon community, Baltimore’s liquor board on Thursday voted to renew the liquor license for the Charles Street establishment called Sangria for another year.

On April 27, the three-member board had deferred making a decision on whether to renew Sangria’s license, after members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association formally protested the renewal based on a series of concerns they had about the operation, including issues with noise, trash, security, communication with the neighborhood and hours of operation.

Several members said Sangria was operating more like a nightclub than a full-service restaurant, and that it was violating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was signed by both parties in 2016 to spell out the terms and conditions under which Sangria would operate.

The liquor board chair, Albert Matricciani Jr., asked the community representatives and the business operators at the April hearing to participate in a mediation process and attempt to resolve their issues. The license for Sangria, at 930 N. Charles St., was due to expire after April 30. The board initially gave the two sides 11 days to meet, then extended the period to 21.

At a public hearing on Thursday, the liquor board members were told that the parties had made progress in their talks and that Sangria’s operators had agreed to changes in four areas covered by the MOU  — communication with the community, security, trash and noise.

They were told that the two sides had not reached agreement on defining the hours of operation and, more specifically, the closing time on weekends.

Matricciani thanked the two parties for their efforts to resolve their differences. On the basis of the testimony and information presented to the board, he said, he was willing to accept the changes to the MOU and to approve Sangria’s request to renew its license. The other two commissioners, Aaron Greenfield and Edward Reisinger, also said they were willing to support the license renewal, and Sangria’s application was approved by a vote of 3 to 0.

Jack Danna, president of the MVBA, said after the hearing that he was disappointed by the vote because not all of the community’s concerns were addressed in the revised MOU.

He said the chief unresolved issue involved closing time. He explained that the original MOU stated that Sangria would agree to close at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights except when there are “special” sporting events its patrons might want to watch on television, in which case it would be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m. 

The problem, Danna said, is that the 2016 MOU did not have a clear definition for what is considered a special sporting event, and Sangria stayed open until 2 a.m. on many nights when a regular season basketball game was on television, not just a playoff game or an event such as the Super Bowl.  

Some advocates for Sangria have charged that the MVBA has singled that business out for scrutiny and complaints when there are other businesses nearby that don’t get as much attention from the neighborhood. Some members of Baltimore’s Black community have said on social media that they believe Sangria gets complaints from the neighborhood because its patrons are mostly Black and the MVBA’s members are mostly white.

Caroline Hecker, attorney for Sangria, and Stephan Fogleman, attorney for the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, address Baltimore's liquor board. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Caroline Hecker, attorney for Sangria, and Stephan Fogleman, attorney for the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, address Baltimore’s liquor board. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Caroline Hecker of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, the law firm representing Sangria, told the liquor board Thursday that a nearby business doesn’t have the closing-time limitations that her client does.

“The Manor, which is right next door at 924 N. Charles St., is allowed to be open until 2 o’clock in the morning both on Friday and Saturday nights and on Thursday nights as well,” she said. “And I think a big problem that we have is the difference between perception and reality when it comes to the disturbance that the community experiences. We don’t doubt that they hear noise and things happening late at night. But I think it’s often unfairly attributed to Sangria when there are other establishments that are open late as well. We really don’t want to further limit our hours…I think there clearly is a misperception that whenever something happens late at night, it must be Sangria.”

MVBA board members say their protest of Sangria’s license renewal isn’t racially motivated. They say they have traced specific incidents to Sangria, not its neighbors. They say they would protest the renewal of any establishment that repeatedly violates its MOU with the community.

Danna said there was a hit-and-run car accident a block away at about 2:15 a.m. Sunday, and a passenger of the vehicle, which later crashed into the Baby’s On Fire parklet on Morton Alley, was caught on camera admitting to having come from Sangria.

Danna said the MVBA had hoped through the mediation process “to narrow what Sangria has been doing in terms of a broader interpretation of what a sporting event is.” He said he would have liked to get Sangria’s operators to agree to cap the number of 2 a.m. closings to no more than about 12 or 13 a year, but that didn’t happen.

“We felt if we could put a numeric number on what that interpretation is, like 12 or 13 a year, it would be super-tight, super-transparent, and give them clarity but give the community reassurance that we’re not going to have a nightclub 365 days a year,” he said.

Sangria’s closing time was “the number one issue” the community wanted to negotiate, he said.

“That’s why I’m a little upset today,” he said. “That was the whole issue of why we sat down with them…We were very clear from the community. We wanted a narrower interpretation of what the sporting event clause meant…The one thing that has the loophole is this interpretation of a special sporting event that enables them to operate until 2…I’m disappointed with the outcome…It’s frustrating.” 

At the liquor board hearing on Thursday, Hecker provided a document spelling out new agreements that came out of the mediation process.  

“In connection with the renewal of its license, Sangria will agree to the following items in addition to the provisions of the existing MOU with the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association,” it states.

In terms of communication with the community: “Sangria will attend MVBA meetings at least 3 times a year. Sangria ownership will meet or otherwise communicate with MVBA at least monthly for the duration of 2023. Sangria ownership will provide current email addresses and cell phone numbers to MVBA.”

In terms of security: “Sangria will have its private security contractor patrol outside the establishment at least hourly. Lights and a security camera will be installed at the rear door. Patrons will be required to exit onto Charles Street and not through the rear.”

In terms of trash: “Sangria’s dumpster will be locked. Sangria will contact its waste management company to see if trash can be collected on weekends.”

In terms of noise: “Sangria will work with Liquor Board inspectors and the Health Department to determine the sound levels that are within levels permitted under the City’s noise ordinance and will maintain volumes within those levels. Sangria will investigate sound proofing options to mitigate noise.”

At the end of the hearing, Matricciani urged Sangria’s operators and attorney to continue working “to try to resolve the closing-time issue, so it doesn’t fester.” He thanked City Council member Eric Costello and liquor board community liaison Matt Achhammer for their work on the mediation process.

“It sounds like you’ve done a lot of good work. Thank you, Councilman. I’m sure it wasn’t easy,” he said. “I would really encourage you to try to come up with some creative ways to deal with that other issue [pertaining to closing hours]…As far as I’m concerned this matter is closed and ready for adjudication.”

Hecker told the board that she thought the latest provisions to the MOU will help address the community’s concerns.

“I think opening the lines of communication between the parties will go a long way to address that, if we can have regular contact,” she said.  

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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