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VOL. 36 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2012

Still fighting for wine in grocery stores

By Hollie Deese

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Shoppers can take advantage of familiar discounts when purchasing wine in grocery stores.

-- Leigh Singleton | Nashville Ledger

Proponents of selling wine in Tennessee grocery stores say it would mean savings and jobs for residents and revenue for the state.

Despite repeated attempts in the General Assembly, Tennessee, unlike many states, does not allow wine to be sold in the local Kroger or Publix.

“Grocery stores tend to sell what you call ‘mass appeal wines,’ the Gallos and the boxes because they can order in big amounts and get big discounts,” says Rick Jelovsek, consumer advocate and wine educator who lives in Johnson City and runs the website tnwinelovers.com.

“We estimate we pay a 40 percent premium here for our wines vs. what you can get on the web. That is why people order from out of state. Even with the shipping it is cheaper.”

Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, is a prime proponent of wine in grocery stores, supporting Red White and Food, a coalition of more than 25,000 Tennesseans who want to be able to pick up a bottle of wine at retail food stores.

Coalition members have sent more than 4,000 emails to legislators asking that Tennessee’s liquor laws be changed.

A shopper at a Newnan, Ga., Kroger looks over well-stocked shelves of wine.

-- Leigh Singleton | Nashville Ledger

“The bulk of customers come in our stores and want to buy wine right here where they buy their steak and their spaghetti because it just makes sense to buy those products together,” he says. “This isn’t anything other than completing a meal and having an experience like the rest of the world does. It has always been about the consumer for us.’’

Is this the year?

The 2013 legislative session offers another opportunity to bring wine to grocery stores. Of course, it has to get through the proper subcommittee first, something it has never done before.

Before grocery stores are allowed to stock wines, current law prohibiting a single entity from owning more than one liquor store would have to be changed.

“The wholesalers have lobbied these laws so a person can only own one wine and spirits store,” Jelovsek says. “They didn’t want someone to have 10 stores and be demanding lower prices, so they (legislators) passed this. And if you let grocery store with multiple outlets carry wine, you would certainly have to let retail stores have multiple locations.”

Jelovsek says he isn’t confident any of these changes will be made soon. Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) has submitted a bill to allow citizens to vote whether to allow wine sales in grocery stores in their communities.

He’s been behind the bill for the past five years, and each year it is shot down by the Local and State Government Committee.

“If it could get to the House and Senate floor it would pass, I am sure of it,” Ketron says. “Surveys done in the state show almost two-thirds maybe three-quarters are in favor of it.”

Springer thinks this year it could actually happen.

“This will change this year as much as it ever has since we have been introducing these bills,” he says. “Every two years the speakers change, and the speaker of the house will choose committee members for all committees, including this one.

“They will select the committee members and that is really where the rubber meets the road because those committees ultimately control the fate of whether that legislation moves or not.

“When you boil it down to that there are a handful of people controlling the fate of this,” Springer adds. “That is no different than any other bill in the legislature, but this is very high profile. Seventy percent of Tennesseans are in favor if this.”

Additional Revenue, Jobs

Thirty-five states allow the sale of liquor in food stores. Springer says Tennessee would see at least an additional $20 million in revenue if it joined that list. Grocers say they would add 1,500 to 3,500 jobs to accommodate the increase in advertising, delivery and more. Local liquor stores would benefit, too, Springer says.

“This isn’t just a one-way street,” Springer explains. “(Owners) should not be restricted to just have one store. We think they should be able to have as many stores as they want.

“The only reason they only get one store is (because of) the liquor wholesalers,” he adds. “The wholesalers don’t want anyone to have buying power. The wholesalers get to set the price, and we will just go on down the road because there is no competition in the market. It is a government-created monopoly that drives up prices for me and you and all of the shoppers in Tennessee.”

The Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association disputes the study’s findings, stating it was paid for by a group that supports the wine industry. It also suggests revenue and jobs projections are exaggerated.

The study results are being used in the Red, White and Food campaign.

Springer says wholesalers are already getting ready for a change even before the legislature returns.

“Wholesalers are positioning themselves and readying themselves for a change in this law,” he says. “They realize this is coming and they are going to accept it when it comes along.

“And ultimately they will be OK with it. All these guys are very smart, intelligent businessmen. We would just like to give them more jobs and bring in more revenue for the state.”

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