Wine drinkers moved closer to being able to pick up a bottle of their favorite at their neighborhood supermarket, as state lawmakers agreed Monday night to lift restrictions on sales in food stores.
The Tennessee Senate voted to send wine-in-grocery stores legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam for signature, capping an often difficult seven-year debate that pitted grocery stores and their wine-loving customers against small business liquor store owners and the powerful distributors who have controlled alcohol sales in the state since the end of Prohibition.
Senators approved House Bill 610 with relatively little debate in a late-day legislative session. They had approved a nearly identical version of the bill in late January.
Haslam has said he plans to approve wine in grocery stores, but passing the bill into law will not be the final hurdle before bottles begin to appear on supermarket shelves.
The bill requires voters in cities and counties that already have liquor stores or bars to approve wine in grocery stores in separate referendums. To appear on the ballot, supporters will have to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the voters in the most recent gubernatorial race.
In Nashville, that will mean collecting more than 15,000 signatures — just to put wine in grocery stores on the ballot.
Senator Bill Ketron, (R) Murfreesboro, told the Tennessean the turning point in the bill's success came when lawmakers decided to allow voters to make their own decision.
"You know, its awfully hard to deny people the right to vote for something they want. If they get enough signatures, each county can put it up and vote for it," he said.
Supporters hope to hold the first referendums this fall, but even if it passes, consumers still will have to wait until July 1, 2016, to begin buying wine in supermarkets. Grocery stores located within 500 feet of a liquor store will not be able to sell wine until July 1, 2017, unless the store owner gives consent to start selling sooner.
The delay is meant to give independent liquor stores time to prepare for competition with grocery store chains.
In Knoxville, grocery shoppers were split on opinion Monday night.
Angelia Lusby said she supports the bill.
"I think it would be really convenient to get wine in grocery stores. One stop shopping -- I think its a good idea," she said.
However, some -- like Dustin McCarely -- oppose offering wine sales outside liquor stores.
"Wine, beer, all of it -- I think should be outlawed in grocery stores and put it back in actual liquor stores and keep it away from kids," he said.