Tennessee's Legislature has long thwarted efforts to change liquor laws to allow grocery stores to sell wine, despite widespread public sentiment in favor of such a change. But given the conciliatory comments of Republican leaders in both the state House and Senate, the tide may turn early in the new year. It's well past time for that to happen.
Key to the potential breakthrough is a change in legislative strategy. Rather than push for a broad state law allowing wine sales in grocery stores, the movement's key sponsors, Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) are advocating a referendum clause that would allow local control over passage of a wine-in-grocery-stores ballot. That is unlikely to diminish the debate among the respective industries, but it would shift much of the political heat off legislators' backs.
That's a smart move, and one likely to favor citizen sentiment for a change. As a report by the Commercial Appeal recalled Thursday, two separate statewide polls last year confirmed broad popular support for wine sales in grocery stores. A Vanderbilt University poll showed 65 percent of respondents favored the shift; Middle Tennessee State University's poll found 69 percent in favor. Even when the Vanderbilt poll asked a follow-up question as to whether a change in the law would "benefit large chain stores while hurting locally owned businesses," 59.6 percent of respondents still supported the change.
To be fair, there is a possibility -- or a probability -- that local liquor and wine stores would suffer some loss of business under such a change. But as a matter of fair trade and fairness to consumers, wine sales should be allowed in grocery stores. There's no logic to their exclusion. If grocery stores are allowed to sell beer and control sales of that alcoholic beverage by means of carding customers to check their legal age, the alcoholic content from wine to beer is not a legitimate controlling issue.
(In fact, there is little logic to continue allowing liquor stores a monopoly over the sales of stronger liquors and spirits. Our antiquated, post-Prohibition liquor regulations need a full-scale overhaul. But the moment, broader sales of stronger spirits isn't on the table; wine is.)
The potential shift in business from wine sales in liquor stores to wine sales in grocery stores is a secondary argument to consumer fairness and convenience. In any case, experience elsewhere shows that wine buyers are likely to sustain patronage of both types of stores. Grocery stores that sell wine rarely provide the selection that good wine stores offer. The latter offer other advantages, as well, in professional judgment in selection, advice and food pairings to consumers.
Wine stores without such competitive expertise may suffer, yet wine sales in grocery stores may also grow the consumer market for better wine stores.
In any case, Tennessee lawmakers should find, at last, that protecting the market for wine sales in liquor stores is needless and unfair to consumers, and to the wine industry at large. The best way for the state to be fair to both is to finally end the exclusive wholesaler infrastructure that keeps retail wine sellers from making direct purchases from wineries. In the interim, Tennessee's consumers, and their wine stores, merit a broader, fairer, less expensive and unfettered market in which to buy and sell a broad selection of wine.