Stan Voit: Selling wine in grocery stores should be legal

Feb. 11, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

Who among us has not been shopping in Kroger or Food City or Wal-Mart and had someone — sensing we were locals — approach us to ask: Where can I buy wine? Why don’t they have it in the grocery store?

We patiently explain that in Tennessee wine cannot be sold in grocery stores. It can only be sold in package liquor stores or wineries that make their own. But, they reply, why can I buy beer in the grocery store? Well, we locals reply, that’s just the way it is. Then, if we’re kind, we direct them to one of our local wineries or to Gatlinburg or East Knoxville, which have the closest package stores.

You can go to any state in this great union and find peculiar laws. The one that bans wine sales in grocery stores — or any store other than a package liquor store or winery — may be our contribution, but keep in mind more than a dozen states have similar laws.

The rationale makes sense — especially before shoppers had a lot more options than they did 30 and 40 years ago. Protect the little guy, preserve the mom-and-pop store.

In Tennessee, wine can only be sold in a retail package store, and nobody can own more than one of them. Every liquor store must be owned by a resident of Tennessee. Retail package stores can only sell wine and spirits, cash checks, and sell lottery tickets. This means that the stores are owned by locals and employ locals, though the one attached to Costco in Knoxville sticks out.

Understandably, the two sides in this debate represent competing interests. Liquor wholesalers and retailers oppose the bill. The big grocery chains like Kroger, Publix and Wal-Mart want it.

Sevier County legislators Doug Overbey and Andrew Farmer are on the side of the retailers. They make a reasonable argument. In interviews last December they all told me they oppose wine sales in grocery stores because of what it might do to the locally owned package stores. Dale Carr serves on the House committee to hear arguments on the bill, so he’s staying out of it for now.

Of course, the same argument opponents of the measure use was also made by many to fight the arrival in towns across America of chains like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target and Home Depot. All giant retailers put the squeeze on the little guys. Restaurant fast-good chains hurt local diners and burger joints. Dine-in chains like Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse affect locally owned restaurants.

In the end, though, it comes down to consumer choice. And in Tennessee, consumers want wine sales in grocery stores. Separate statewide polls in 2011 by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State showed two out of three surveyed want the option. The Vanderbilt poll also asked people about how wine sales in grocery stores might hurt locally owned businesses. Even knowing that, six out of 10 want wine on grocery store shelves.

One proposal in the Legislature this year would allow each community where alcohol is sold to have its own referendum to decide. That’s not a good solution. Tennessee needs a uniform state law on this, not dozens of different laws. Such a situation would lend itself to abuse.

Tourism-dependent Sevier County, which attracts people from every state, should be supportive of ways to satisfy the wishes of our visitors when it comes to convenience and consumer desires. Local residents, too, probably want more options on wine sales than having to visit a liquor store in another city or even across county lines. Many people who drink wine never drink hard liquor.

As I see it, this will be decided, as it has for the last six years when the issue surfaces, not based on what a poll says, but on the influence of lobbyists and the personal views of legislators. There are fair and impassioned arguments to be made on both sides. But in the end, it should come down to one thing: What is best for the people.

If that’s the criterion, wine sales in grocery stores would win out every time.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.