Debate over wine in grocery stores continues

Debate over wine in grocery stores continues (Image 1)

The debate over “Wine in Grocery Stores” legislation continued in a state Senate committee Monday.

The State and Local Government Committee held a public hearing between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

The room overflowed with those for and against the legislation that would allow wine sales in grocery stores.

Mothers, doctors, lawyers and law enforcement from across the state went before the committee. Business owners were more largely represented.

“The liquor industry has a government-protected monopoly,” said Randy Stepherson, owner of Superlo Foods, a grocery chain out of Memphis.

“We don't hold a monopoly. We're merely playing by the rules established by the state,” rebutted Chip Christianson, owner of J. Barleycorn's Wine and Spirits in Nashville.

Supporters, including Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, have long argued that voters should have the convenience and choice to purchase wine in grocery stores, which is currently not allowed under state law.

Those opposed, including Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, worry about the potential negative impact to the community and locally owned liquor stores.

The latest proposal in the five year fight would allow wine sales in retail food stores, including convenience markets, with one caveat.

“Ayes vote will not put wine on the shelves of food stores,” Senator Bill Ketron, the bill's sponsor, explained.

The proposal currently before the House (HB0610) and the Senate (SB0837) is a referendum measure that would allow voters in each municipality to decide whether to allow wines sales in retail food stores.

Only those municipalities that currently offer package sales would be eligible to hold a vote.

The idea of referendum has given the proposal momentum it has lacked in previous years.

“Those communities need to decide and that local control is important in Tennessee because they set it up that way,” said Jarron Springer, President of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association.

Bard Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine and Spirits, disagreed.

“Citizens will only get the question of 'Do you want to see wine in grocery stores?' That's not what the referendum is about,” he said.

Quillman and others feel the public has been mislead by campaigns that support wine in grocery stores.

Despite safeguards in the current proposal that would limit the volume of alcohol to 18 percent and require mandatory carding of all consumers, many fear an increase in access to wine.

“Convenience versus public safety,” said Sheriff David Woolfork of Madison County. “We see harmful effects. We see, as we have to operate undercover stings in trying to monitor convenience stores, the problems it's caused. Offering wine in convenience stores would just create another monster.”

Those who support wine in grocery stores are ready to let the voters decide.

“If they don't want it, they won't vote for it,” said Springer.

Members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee are expected to vote Tuesday morning, while a House committee holds a public hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Neither the full Senate nor the full House have taken a vote on the wine in grocery stores bill this year.

If the proposal passes, municipalities could put a referendum before voters in November 2014.

If the individual referendums pass, licenses could be issued to grocers in early 2015.

The Senate Committee will vote Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

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