Let's uncork wine sales in grocery stores

EARLY VOTINGEarly voting starts Wednesday and ends Oct. 30. Vote at the Brainerd Recreation Center, Hamilton County Election Commission, Northgate Mall and Eastwood Church. A Tennessee or federal photo ID is required to vote.

If voters on Nov. 4 give wine in grocery stores a majority "yes" vote, then grocers in up to 78 municipalities across Tennessee will for the first time be able to sell all of the major food groups of today's society under one roof.

With a majority of votes in each community, wine will go on the shelves of Bi-Lo, Food City, Food Lion, Kroger, Publix, Superlo Foods and Walmart beginning July 1, 2016, in Chattanooga, Collegedale, East Ridge, Lakesite, Red Bank, Signal Mountain, Cleveland, Monteagle, Oak Ridge, Tullahoma, Lenoir City, Athens and Etowah in this region of Tennessee.

Last year, the grocery store industry began planning another run at legislation to allow local governments to hold referendums on wine in food stores, and Gov. Bill Haslam signed the so-called "wine in grocery stores" bill in March. But the law didn't make it a done deal: Rather, it allowed cities and counties that already had legalized liquor by the drink or package sales to have wine referendums in November.

Getting a referendum on the ballot required a petition from 10 percent of the number of city or town people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. That was accomplished in short order between mid-May and Aug. 21.

Surprisingly, neither the effort nor the question on the ballot garnered organized opposition from either churches or mom-and-pop liquor stores. Organizers of the wine-in-stores movement had made an early compromise with liquor store owners: Liquor stores could begin selling food and beer last July, but wine won't go on grocery shelves until July 2016 to give liquor store owners time to prepare to compete with grocery store chains.

Now all that's left to end decades-old, prohibition-era laws that keep wine sales out of food stores in our communities is that final vote in early November.

Tennessee is the only Southeastern state that currently does not allow wine sales in grocery stores. Thirty-six states around the country already allow wine on retail food store shelves.

In 2010, Tennessee lawmakers' delay on approving a wine-in-stores bill led Costco to put its new Chattanooga-area store just over the state line in Georgia That meant Georgia reaped the sales tax benefits not just on general store operations but also on Costco's nation-leading wine sales juggernaut. According to one study, Tennessee's delay shorted Volunteer State tax collections overall by about $16 million a year and cost local government revenues about $11 million annually.

Then, as now, it wasn't because Chattanooga-area voters disapproved of alcohol. Voters here approved mixed drinks for restaurants and bottle sales in liquor package stores decades ago. And liquor by the drink passed in the early 1970s even though it was then fiercely opposed by church groups.

This time, the choice is all with the voters.

Read all the way to the bottom of your ballot and mark the circle "For legal sale of wine at retail food stores. ..."

It's likely that your next question on the wine issue will be simpler: Red or white?