Wine-in-grocery-stores fight picks up steam

To many consumers, the question is simple.

"If they can sell beer in here, they should be able to sell wine," Wil Prude, a shopper at a Brentwood Kroger, said on a recent afternoon.

But debate over where wine can be sold has vexed anyone who thought it would be easy. From the 1970s, when Tennessee first looked at reforming its post-Prohibition liquor laws, to today, grocery stores and liquor stores have battled over who should be able to sell Tennesseans a bottle of their favorite Merlot, Chablis or Riesling.

Liquor stores have won every fight so far. But they may not for much longer.

Momentum appears to be gathering behind a measure that would let food sellers stock wine for the first time since temperance movement activist Carrie Nation was smashing barrels in Kansas saloons in the early 20th century. Two-thirds of Tennesseans say in polls that they favor wine in grocery stores, and lawmakers are listening.

A bill sent to the Senate floor last spring would let supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and other retailers with beer licenses place wine on their shelves, provided voters agree through local referendums. The measure also could lift decades-old restrictions on what liquor stores can sell — under current law they can't even peddle corkscrews — as well as the number of stores a person can own and how prices are negotiated between retailers and wholesalers.

The bill was bottled up in a House committee during the 2013 legislative session by a single vote. But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a supporter of the bill, confidently predicts it will pass when lawmakers reconvene next year.

In a further hint that the time might be ripe for change, state Rep. Matthew Hill, the Jonesborough Republican who cast a deciding committee vote against the measure, said last week that he was willing to reverse that vote as long as proponents agreed to a full debate on the matter.

Pressure mounts

Grocery stores, meanwhile, are amping up political pressure on legislators. The Kroger Co. has asked shoppers from across the state to join a postcard campaign urging their local lawmakers to approve wine in grocery stores. Red, White & Food, a political action committee backed by grocery stores, is waging a similar effort.

"We're not in it just to protect laws that protect us," said Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association. "We want to service our consumers, and they obviously want wine in grocery stores."

But liquor store owners are not sitting idly by. They say letting grocery stores sell wine would undermine their business models and could create public health problems. They also question claims that opening up the wine market to grocery stores would generate more tax dollars.

"If they (grocery stores) didn't think they could make more money off of this, they wouldn't care," said Bard Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine & Spirits in Franklin. "That's sort of the bottom line for me. This is a money issue."

The dollars are big for distributors as well. Among other key questions, the debate will have to settle whether beer or liquor wholesalers get to provide the wine that is sold in grocery stores. Both groups are powerful forces at the state Capitol.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia let grocery stores sell wine. An additional three — New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland — allow a limited number of supermarkets to do so. Many shoppers, especially those who have lived in one of those other states, simply take it for granted that wine should be available at the supermarket.

"It's a food," said John Sims, a shopper from Mt. Juliet. "There are people who overindulge, but to me it's an ingredient."

Whether Tennessee joins the list in 2014 will be determined in the coming months, but the table is set for a spirited debate.


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment