Wine in the checkout line?

State, locals debate wine in grocery stores
Feb. 11, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

Diane Knipp doesn’t like the prospect of wine being sold in supermarkets, groceries and convenience stores.

“It’s going to take half of my business,” said Knipp, who owns Park Liquor Store, 1235 E. Parkway in Gatlinburg. “I’d have to lay off an employee.”

The Tennessee legislature is considering a bill that would let municipalities decide, by referendum, whether to let grocery stores sell wine. Currently wine can only be sold at the state’s 550 liquor stores. Grocery stores already sell beer and other lower-alcohol products.

Referenda would be allowed in cities that already allow package liquor sales or liquor by the drink, or both. There are package stores in Gatlinburg, and liquor by the drink is legal in Gatlinburg and Sevierville.

In November, Pigeon Forge voters passed a referendum allowing liquor by the drink, but the result was voided because of poll irregularities. A new referendum is set for March 14.

According to a Middle Tennessee State University poll released last week, 69 percent of Tennesseeans favor wine being sold in grocery stores – up from 62 percent in 2009. Seventeen percent are opposed, and 13 percent are undecided.

Knipp bought her liquor store 12 years ago.

“I’m selling more wine now,” she said. “That’s where the growth is, more than liquor. We get a lot of tourists here. If they come buy a bottle of wine, they’ll come back the next day and buy another. If they buy liquor, I don’t see them again.”

In recent years, the legislature has considered numerous bills allowing wine sales in food stores. All have failed. What’s different about the new bill is the local-referendum component.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a referendum,” said Knipp. “We elect these people to go up there and make these decisions and handle these laws.”

Arguing against referenda, Knipp cited the controversy in Pigeon Forge. “That was a fiasco,” said Knipp. “If we do this, I hope we don’t end up with stuff like that. That gets expensive.”

The new bill is sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) and Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). Lundberg says shoppers in his city frequently cross into Virginia to buy wine at grocery stores. “Across the state, so many larger cities are on borders,” he said. “We’ve been shipping people out of state to spend their money.”

The measure would bring tax dollars back to Tennessee, said Lundberg, who believes his measure has a good chance of passing. “We have a legislative body that is business-friendly, and this is a very business-friendly bill.”

The bill is being promoted by the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, whose members include the supermarket chains Kroger and Food City. Both those chains do business in Sevier County.

Smaller, independent stores also are association members. “They are overlooked,” said the association’s president, Jarron Springer. “They are in favor of this as well.”

Passing the bill would not put wine on grocery-store shelves, Springer noted. “We want to allow voters in local communities to choose whether to have wine in stores,” he said.

The legislation would encourage competition, Springer said. “That’s good for consumers,” he said. He added, referring to groceries: “We already compete. There’s people selling groceries all over the place. There’s no protection for us. We’re not going out of business. Our goal is to provide customers what they want.”

Foes of the measure cite its possible effects on small businesses.

“Many of my members are mom-and-pop folks,” said Chip Christianson, vice president of legislative affairs at the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Assocation. “They have dedicated their life savings based on rules that have been in place since Prohibition.”

Tennessee’s alcohol laws work well, observed Christianson, a Nashville-based liquor retailer. “There are reasons they segregate high-proof alcohol the way they do,” he said. “It’s dangerous. I sell a dangerous product. It requires more attention, more scrutiny than other grocery products.”

Christianson objects to the lobbying of grocery chains such as Ohio-based Kroger and Virginia-based Food City.

“Out-of-state people are trying to come in and change the rules of the game,” he said. “Every one of our retailers is a Tennessee resident. They make money in Tennessee. It stays in Tennessee. To the extent the supermarkets make a profit, it goes to corporate officeholders outside the state of Tennessee.”

Springer pointed out that some supermarket earnings stay in Tennessee. “That money is here in the form of tens of thousands of jobs,” he said. “We’re using local third-party businesses to help with the operation of the stores.” Supermarket chains also contribute to community outreach efforts, he said.

The wine bill is supported by House Speaker Beth Ramsey and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is speaker of the Senate. Gov. Phil Haslam has no position on the bill but will sign it if it is passed.

Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) is skeptical about the proposed policy. He notes that it would give minors more opportunities to acquire wine. He also is concerned about liquor-store owners: “I don’t think it’s fair to these folks who made investments and pay their taxes to change the rules in the middle of the game.”

Rep. Dale Carr (R-Sevierville) is neutral on the bill. “I’m on the subcommittee that hears that,” he said, referring to the Local Government subcommittee. “I would hate to take a stance on that without hearing both sides.”

Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) is undecided. “If you asked me, do I believe people should have the right to determine whether wine should be sold in grocery stores, I would say yes,” he said. “Because of the free market. These are conservative, Republican principles.”

But, Farmer said, “The burden will be placed on the small businesses that currently carry wine, and all the wineries that have opened up. That concerns me. I think small business is the backbone of our country.”

The wine bill is, Farmer said, “a tough issue.”

In 2011, Farmer acquired Epi’s Fine Wine and Spirits, the Gatlinburg liquor store that belonged to his wife’s father. Farmer no longer owns the store.

Farmer noted that the wine bill could present law-enforcement challenges.

Responding to a message for Sevierville Police Chief Don Myers, city spokesman Bob Stahlke said, “Should such a bill be enacted, it would be up to the citizens of Sevierville to decide.”

Messages left with the Gatlinburg Police Department and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office were not returned. Messages left with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police and the Tennessee Sheriffs Association also were not returned.

Tennessee is a winemaking state, but the trade association that represents Tennessee winemakers has no position on the legislation. “We are neutral,” said Sevier County winemaker Don Collier, president of the Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance.

“I don’t think it would hurt us at all, one way or the other,” said Jonathan Ball, vice president of operations at Pigeon Forge’s Mountain Valley Winery. Ball does marketing and promotions work for several Sevier County wine businesses associated with Collier, including Sugarland Cellars and the Apple Barn, Hillside, Eagle Springs and Mountain Valley wineries.

“We’re more of a tourist destination,” said Ball. “People come for the experience. They want to taste, take a tour. We don’t really think about wine in grocery stores.”

As for Sevier County wine drinkers, Diane Knipp says customers at her liquor store tell her they oppose the measure.

Then there is Sevierville’s Jayne Vaughn. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t allow the sale of wine in grocery stores,” said the Fort Myers, Fla., native. She has lived in Sevier County for 30 years.

“Where I came from, it is available in grocery stores,” said Vaughn, who typically buys wine in Knoxville. “I come from an Italian heritage. We always enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner. Not to excess, but it was an enhancement to the food.”

Vaughn also cooks with wine. “It’s interesting that no one brings up the culinary side of this,” she said. “A lot of recipes call for a splash of white wine in the sauce, or red wine to enhance the flavor.” The alcohol is burned off, she added.

Said Vaughn, “If the sale of beer is allowed, I don’t see why wine shouldn’t be as well.”

n kburns@themountainpress.com