Capitol Hill Conversation: Reviving Wine in Supermarkets

Mar 18, 2013

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The debate over who can sell alcohol and where dates back to liquor laws hashed out at the end of prohibition, but the latest controversy in the state Legislature is over expanding wine sales to grocery stores. Tennessee is in the minority on this issue. Thirty-six states allow wine in food stores. Polls show consumers favor the convenience of picking up a bottle of wine and the ingredients for dinner all in one stop, and this year grocery store companies have swarmed the state Capitol to lobby for a bill that would allow them to do just that.

Liquor store owners, however, are against the change. Lee Nettles runs a wine and spirits shop in Smyrna and he believes if the law is changed, out-of-state corporations like Kroger and Publix Super Markets will profit at the expense of his small businesses. “It’s not about the inconvenience, I’m sorry. It’s about the almighty dollar. That’s why Publix wants it,” Nettles said. “Let’s just be honest about the situation.”

“Liquor stores are some of the most regulated retail establishments,” said Blake Farmer who covers the state Capitol for WPLN. Stores that sell liquor and wine can’t carry beer, corkscrews or drink mixers; they are barred from having multiple locations; and they can’t be open 24 hours a day. “They [liquor store owners] accept the rules and hope the lack of competition will make up for all these hoops they’ve got to jump through,” said Farmer.

Despite objections from liquor sellers, a proposal to open the door for supermarkets and convenience stores to sell wine along with beer gained traction in the state Legislature this year. Instead of a blanket state law, the bill said wine sales could be expanded by local referendum.

“In the Legislature, you’ve got folks who don’t want to be seen as voting in favor of alcohol laws. They have moral or religious objections,” said Farmer. “So letting local voters decide gives lawmakers a way to vote ‘yes’ without being seen as complicit in expanding wine sales.”

The bill passed a House subcommittee, but it failed in the full committee because of one lawmaker, Representative Matthew Hill. He supported the bill in the subcommittee, then changed his vote in the full committee. “Some on this full committee, where he [Hill] is the chairman, wanted to alter the bill—perhaps help unhappy liquor stores by letting them sell those corkscrews, or maybe lifting the ban on owning multiple stores,” explained Farmer. “But there was this move to cut off debate before the legislation could be amended. That made Hill mad, so he switched his vote to everyone’s surprise.”

Does this mean the bill is dead in the state House? “Supporters think of it more as a Sleeping Beauty,” said Farmer. “Could she be revived? Yes, but Prince Charming would almost [certainly] have to be Representative Hill.”

The bill is still alive in the state Senate, but the appetite to for wine in grocery stores appears to be waning there. “Unless and until Prince Charming wakes up Sleeping Beauty in the House, we really don’t need to go forward until that time,” said state Senator Doug Overbey.