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Aubrey Stout stocks wine at Riverside Wine and Spirits while general manager Alison Matera, background, moves beer stock at the recently expanded Manufacturer's Road store. Liquor and beer have been sold there since July.
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Austin Abercrombie, shift leader at Bacchus Wine and Spirits on Highway 153, moves his domestic beer stock to a visible location at the back of the store. When asked how customers know about the availability of beer, he said, "It is pretty much word-of-mouth, right now."

New beer and wine laws

> Senate Bill 837/ House Bill 610: New Tennessee law, passed in March, allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores and the sale of beer, snacks, paraphernalia and other items in liquor stores. The new law also expanded the state's ID laws, requiring now that liquor stores also card anyone purchasing alcoholic beverages.

> July 1, 2014: Liquor and wine stores in Tennessee were allowed to put beer and malt beverages, assorted paraphernalia items (like bottle-openers) and some food items on store shelves. They were already allowed to sell high-gravity beers.

> Aug. 21, 2014: Deadline to submit wine-in-grocery-stores petitions, placed in stores across the state in the effort to get 10 percent of 2010 gubernatorial voter numbers in their respective voting districts to put wine in grocery stores to a vote.

> Nov. 4, 2014: Municipalities where wine-in-grocery-stores petitions reached required signatures will have a ballot item for voters to decide whether they want to approve the sale of wine in grocery stores.

> July 1, 2016: Where approved by voters, wine is allowed to go on sale in Tennessee grocery stores.

The question among local liquor store owners is whether new state laws loosening regulations on beer and wine sales will actually help them, or do the opposite.

Opinions are split.

Some liquor store owners say this is the most exciting thing that's happened for the industry in Tennessee since prohibition was lifted.

Others see beer sales as a strange, new world, and one which they don't know.

Starting July 1, the state's liquor stores have been able to sell normal-gravity beer, liquor, wine and some party and food items under the same roof for the first time as a sort of check and balance against the sale of wine in grocery stores, which will go into effect in many communities in 2016.

Legislators granted the right to sell party items and beer to liquor stores because many in the liquor store industry said voting to allow wine in grocery stores was like taking money out of liquor stores' pockets.

Some local liquor store owners still believe that when 2016 comes, their business is going to slow as wine shoppers opt to buy at grocery outlets instead of liquor stores, even with built-in state regulations that require liquor and grocery stores alike to put a 20 percent mark up on wines to prevent undercutting. Liquor stores also got the benefit of selling beer, snacks and paraphernalia two years ahead of when wine hits grocery shelves.

Still, Lori Sharp has doubts.

She has introduced a small selection of specialty and seasonal beers at Bacchus Wine and Spirits, which she co-owns alongside her mother, Diann Georgitso.

Sharp says wine is the most profitable item in her store. And beer is now the least.

Sharp says if she matched her beer prices to compete with supermarkets, she would only stand to make about 70 cents per case on the major brands.

"How am I supposed to compete with that?" she asked.

And three months now with beer on her shelves, Sharp said "it's not huge yet."

By-and-large, her customers are still only coming in for scotches, whiskeys and wines, the same as before the new law went into effect.

"Some know we sell it, some don't," she said. "I don't think the public understands what this means."

Sharp says the biggest benefit she can offer beer buyers is convenience.

Jeff Ruth, manager at Sports Wine and Spirits nearby in Hixson, raises some of the same issues. He said most of his customers aren't even aware of the new state law.

"If I put four, eight, 10 displays of beer up, there'd be people who didn't even notice it," he said.

Ruth has other concerns with the new law, too.

On the one hand, it's a long-awaited blessing for liquor store owners to be able to sell things many customers expect to find on-site anyway, like bottle openers.

For years, Ruth said folks have asked where he keeps the bottle openers, and he had to tell them that state law prevented him from selling paraphenelia.

"That made no sense," he said.

But on the flipside of the expanded offerings, with soft drinks, bottled water, olives and pineapple juice popular items in liquor stores, Ruth said he'll have to be extra watchful to spot underage patrons.

"By law, someone who is 15 can come in here and buy a jar of olives," he said. "Before, there was no reason for someone 19 to be in this store at all."

Ruth is also confused why since July 1 he now has to card every customer who comes into his store and buys alcohol. The state extended its ID law to wine and liquor stores in the wine-in-grocery-stores legislation which took effect July 1.

A regular customer of Ruth's questioned him at the front counter about the ID law.

Pointing at the man, Ruth explained the answer he was given by the state: "Do I have to card him every single day, six days a week? And the answer was yes."

Ruth hasn't ventured into beer sales yet. He plans to start small, putting out beer inventory in the coming month.

• • •

Other local liquor store owners actually like the new law and the trade.

The staff at Riverside Wine and Spirits couldn't wait to bring down the wall that separated their liquor and wine market from their beer one next door.

Riverside has always believed in beer, said Alison Matera, DWS, general manager at the store.

"This was the best news we'd ever heard," she said.

The Riverside staff was previously balancing their time between the beer store and the liquor and wine store. They kept a functioning doorbell at the beer side's front door, and customers normally had to ring it and let someone from the wine side know they had a beer customer.

Riverside carries an extensive inventory of craft, specialty, seasonal, high-gravity and run-of-the-mill beers. Matera believes beer has caught up to wine in its craft and following.

"Beer has the clout that wine has," she said.

But with beer's elevated clout and ever-expanded offering, there exists and education responsibility, especially in a city like Chattanooga, where beer drinkers have an above-average drink IQ, said Matera.

"You've got to know what it is," she said. "Beer drinkers are no longer treating beer as just sort of a malt beverage. They're treating it like wine drinkers treat wine - as a luxury. I can't imagine the struggle of anybody who doesn't know the beer market trying to start from scratch."

Speaking of wine, Matera thinks Riverside will be fine when wine hits grocery store shelves.

She believes the educated staff at Riverside will set the store apart and keep connoisseur customers returning.

"When wine hits the grocery stores, it's not going to affect us," she said. "You're not going to get that kind of service in a grocery store."

The store doesn't have its new beer, wine and liquor store format down pat yet. The staff is still experimenting with product placement and floor management. But they're positive about what the future holds.

"Nobody's going to hurt us," Matera said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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