published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

This could be Tennessee's year for wine in grocery stores

Rowena Belcher shops the wine selection at Enzo's Market. A bill that would allow grocery stores to sell wine is expected to come up in the state Legislature in 2014.
Rowena Belcher shops the wine selection at Enzo's Market. A bill that would allow grocery stores to sell wine is expected to come up in the state Legislature in 2014.
Photo by Maura Friedman.

Could this be the time for wine? Top state lawmakers appear to think a matter that comes up year after year has finally aged to perfection.

Legislation that would let grocery stores sell wine is expected to trigger a fierce debate at the state Capitol in 2014 -- just as it has in years past. But Republican leaders are throwing more weight behind the bill, and they point to the progress the measure made last year -- however slight -- as a sign that a breakthrough could come this session.

"I see movement," House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters recently. "I can't always predict what the General Assembly will do, but I feel like the people want the right to vote on this issue."

Last February, a Senate committee approved a bill that would let local governments hold referendums on allowing supermarkets in their jurisdictions to stock wine. Liquor stores and bars have faced similar rules since the repeal of Prohibition.

The measure, Senate Bill 837, also has an amendment attached to it that would let liquor stores sell items other than alcohol, such as wine glasses, corkscrews, ice and fruit. Other amendments would let people own more than one store and would let beer distributors sell wine to grocery stores.

The vote suggested a major shift among state lawmakers. In previous years, opponents had managed to kill wine-in-grocery stores bills in committee, snatching the prize away from their optimistic supporters.

Poll
Should Tennessee supermarkets sell wine?

But the momentum wouldn't last. Companion legislation failed soon after that in a House of Representatives committee by a single vote, and not even Harwell's backing could see it through.

Since then, supporters have tried to amp up the pressure on lawmakers with a petition drive in supermarkets. A poll taken by Vanderbilt University last spring showed that voters in Tennessee approve of wine in grocery stores by more than 2-to-1.

That fact, if nothing else, grabbed state lawmakers' attention.

But several questions linger. Among them is whether grocery stores would be able to sell wine on Sundays. That could give them a competitive advantage over liquor stores, which are barred from opening on Sundays.

There also could be skirmishes over rules and regulations. Many liquor stores have opened right next door to supermarkets, and they will resist direct competition from larger retailers bound by different restrictions.

Legislative leaders have urged liquor store owners and distributors to compromise with grocers and other backers of the bill, but so far no deal has emerged.

It's possible, though, that Republican lawmakers will press ahead anyway, with or without their support.

"It really is time for that bill to pass," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the leader of the state Senate. "I'm not sure that bill will pass exactly like it is now ... but I expect it to pass this year."

But not all lawmakers are bubbly about the bill. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said the push reflects a Legislature more interested in pleasing voters than helping them find jobs or health care. "The priority is wine in grocery stores?" he said to reporters last week. "I mean, give me a break."

A sign, perhaps, that the fight over wine in grocery stores might lack an elegant finish.

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