Many residents of the Chattanooga area are understandably flummoxed by Tennessee's silly wine laws. While wine is available in grocery stores in Georgia, picking up a bottle of cabernet in Tennessee requires a trip to the liquor store. At the same time, beer, which is generally blamed for more of society's alcohol-related woes than wine, has been available for decades in grocery stores throughout the Volunteer State to consumers of legal age.
So what gives? Why isn't wine already sold in Tennessee's grocery stores?
Decades ago the state government set up a wine distribution monopoly, allowing a very small number of people to make a very large amount of money -- and the greedy distributors benefiting from the system don't want that system to end.
State law dictates that wine must be sold in a package store. All of those liquor stores are divided into four regions: West, Middle, Southeast and Northeast Tennessee. Each brand of liquor and wine can only be sold to package stores in each region by one wholesaler. In other words, the company selling Kendall-Jackson wines in Southeast Tennessee is the only company allowed to sell Kendall-Jackson in the entire area. As a result, that company has a monopoly on the brand in the area and can charge whatever it wants.
This monopoly is extremely lucrative for the small handful of distributors allowed in each region. The racket is very costly for wine and liquor consumers, however, because the lack of competition means prices for alcohol are much higher than in other states.
Each year, grass-roots support builds among wine consumers who simply want the opportunity to purchase wine cheaper and more conveniently in a grocery store. But the alcohol barons, who have become filthy rich off the state's unfair scheme, always kill off attempts to create a fairer, freer system of wine sales by hiring lobbyists, paying off allies and pouring money into state lawmakers' campaign coffers.
In 2010, efforts to make wine available where beer is sold were met with half a million dollars in political contributions by the liquor wholesalers who benefit from the current system, according to TNReport.com, a state-government focused news website.
Tennessee's ridiculous wine laws aren't just an attack on consumer freedom. They actually kill jobs, hurt the economy and cost local governments millions of tax dollars.
The Volunteer State's restrictions on wine drove Costco officials to build the Chattanooga-area location of the wholesale store two miles south of the state line in Catoosa County, Ga., rather than in Chattanooga. If Costco, which is the world's largest wine retailer, had built the store in Tennessee, it would have been forced to build a separate building for its wine sales -- an expense the company was unwilling to make. As a result, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars shifted from Hamilton County to Catoosa County.
A study by Red White and Food, an advocacy group supporting wine sales in retail food stores, revealed that modernizing Tennessee's antiquated wine monopoly would net nearly 3,000 new jobs and generate as much as $38 million in tax revenue.
Policy proposals expected to be debated by the Tennessee General Assembly early next year don't force wine sales on Tennesseans. Instead, the legislation simply empowers Tennessee cities, if they so choose, to allow voters to decide the issue. Wine won't be sold in grocery stores in cities where a majority of voters are against it.
Thirty-three states allow wine sales in grocery stores. Tennessee residents want the Volunteer State to become number 34. A 2011 poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University found that 69 percent of Tennesseans support wine sales in retail food stores.
For years, Tennessee's state lawmakers have been bought off by contributions from liquor wholesalers. In 2013, our elected officials in Nashville should finally put jobs, economic growth, liberty and common sense before special interests and allow voters with opportunity to decide whether to allow wine in grocery stores.