House approval of wine bill not the last hurdle

The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would let grocery stores sell wine, in perhaps the biggest overhaul of the state's liquor laws since the end of Prohibition.

Lawmakers voted 71-15 to allow supermarkets, convenience stores and big-box retailers to start selling wine as soon as the summer of 2016, provided local voters sign off at the polls. The bill would also let liquor stores sell items other than alcohol and would let liquor wholesalers set up shop outside the state's four biggest cities.

The vote was not the final hurdle House Bill 610 has to clear before it heads to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk for signature. The Senate, which approved wine-in-grocery stores legislation earlier this year, still has to sign off on small differences between its version and the House's.

But with the measure passing by a wide margin, backers said they are confident it will be enacted this year.

"Members have heard from their constituents. The constituents overwhelmingly wanted the opportunity to buy wine in grocery stores," said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

The bill approved Thursday would give final authority to allow wine in grocery stores to voters. Just as Tennessee law requires a referendum before communities can have bars or liquor stores, voters would have to agree to allow wine on grocery store shelves.

The first of these local referendums could take place as soon as this November. If voters approve, grocery stores generally would be able to start selling wine July 1, 2016.

Liquor stores, however, could begin selling mixers, glassware, T-shirts and other items they currently are prohibited from selling as soon as this summer. The two-year transition period is meant to give liquor stores time to adjust to new business rules. (Liquor stores within 500 feet of a grocery store would be given up to three years.)

The bill also requires wine to be marked up at least 20 percent. The requirement is meant to keep supermarket chains and big-box stores from selling wine at cut-rate prices, undermining liquor stores.

Liquor store owners did not fight the bill, though many remain unhappy with the changes. Bard Quillman, a Franklin liquor store owner and board member with the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association, predicted some stores will go out of business once grocery stores start selling wine.


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