Cook: Pandora's box of wine

Cook: Pandora's box of wine

December 28th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Drinking a glass of wine tonight? Got a bottle picked out for New Year's Eve?

Seems like a good idea -- a more convenient one -- to sell wine in grocery stores. We ought to be able to go in and buy our dog food, Raisin Bran and pinot noir, all in one stop.

But selling wine in grocery stores -- which continues to attract the attention of Nashville legislators -- is kind of like a political version of what happens when we drink too much: Things aren't always as they seem.

"If I didn't know as much as I do about this, I would think I should be able to go into a grocery store and buy wine," said Chris Bratcher, owner of Riverside Wine and Spirits. "But what people don't understand is that you've got this underlying set of regulations in place."

You must be a Tennessee resident to own a liquor store here. You can own only one. (And you're forbidden from running for public office).

You can't operate your store within 500 feet of a church or school. No one under 21 can walk in. You're forbidden to sell anything -- not even a bottle opener -- other than wine or spirits.

Putting wine in grocery stores corkscrews local liquor store owners because it gives such massive and unfair advantage to out-of-state grocery store corporations that don't have to play by the same rules.

Plus, it opens a Pandora's box of wine problems.

If, say, Bi-Lo and Kroger (not prohibited from being located within 500 feet of a school or church) sell wine, then why not liquor? Why not on Sunday?

What about gas stations? They sell food. Shouldn't they sell wine and whiskey, too?

How about CVS and Walgreens? They sell food. And beer. Why not wine? Jagermeister alongside the cough syrup? (They're so similar anyway).

The only way to do this fairly and justly is to erase all the liquor regulations. Any booze, anywhere, anytime.

"It's not a level playing field if you tell mom-and-pop operators we're going to leave your rules intact, but we're going to let other stores carry the product you've made your business on," Bratcher said.

It's misleading to claim wine in grocery stores would increase tax revenue. More people won't suddenly start buying wine; they'll just start buying it in different places. Which means the old places -- locally owned liquor stores -- will suffer. Badly.

"There is a reason there are no family-owned grocery stores left," said Bratcher.

He predicts 30 percent of local liquor stores could go out of business. The folks at Athens Distributing estimate the same. Terrell Hurley, owner of Riley's Wine & Spirits, predicts 20 percent.

"If we lose half of our [wine sales], then we're going to have to lay off people," said Hurley, who has been in the local liquor industry for decades. "If you really want to drive your own economy, why would you give [away] a piece of that economy? No grocery store chain is headquartered in Tennessee. Not one."

If state legislators are responsible for the well-being of their constituents, then allowing wine in grocery stores -- which then ship more revenue out of state -- violates that social contract.

I've seen studies that show wine isn't cheaper in grocery stores. I've heard it will be easier for teens to buy alcohol. Grocery stores won't stock thoughtful wines.

All in the name of convenience?

When I first heard the idea, I liked it, too. One stop is easier than two.

But I've come to enjoy stopping by the liquor store, where folks know and understand wine. It's one of those important -- and increasingly rare -- social interactions, where commerce, personalities and neighborhoods intersect.

And making an extra stop to spend $10 on a bottle of wine crafted from grapes grown half a world away and turned into one of the most delicious drinks on earth is not really an inconvenience.

It ought to be something we savor.