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A sign in a Kroger supermarket in Nashville urges shoppers to sign up for a group urging lawmakers to change state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores.
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NASHVILLE - After years of bitter legislative fights over efforts to allow Tennessee grocery stores to sell wine, groups representing liquor stores and supermarkets are nearing an agreement that would give the measure its best ever chances of becoming law.

David McMahan, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, told The Associated Press that the two sides are "very, very close" on a deal that would allow cities and counties to vote on whether to allow wine sales in supermarkets. But the measure would maintain the current ban at convenience stores and big box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target.

"The real issue is whether or not that consumer deserves the convenience of being able to buy wine where they buy their groceries," McMahan said. "And that's what we're interested in working on, and helping the Legislature find a solution to."

Under current law, supermarkets and convenience stores can sell beer containing up to 6.5 percent alcohol by volume. Anything stronger can only be sold in liquor stores, which can't sell anything beyond booze and lottery tickets.

The proposed law change would allow liquor stores to sell a variety of other items like cigarettes, beer and food.

McMahan said the liquor stores are in "in lockstep" with the state's liquor wholesalers in seeking the compromise, which represents a vast departure from the fierce opposition the groups voiced to any changes proposed in the past.

"If it looks like it's going to happen, we want to make sure that we protect our business environment," McMahan said. "And we think we're very, very close in negotiations with the grocery stores, and coming up with a bill that would allow them wine and also give us a business environment that we can thrive in.

"We're excited about it," he said.

But McMahan cautioned that the deal could fall apart if convenience stores, big box retailers, dollar stores and other insist on being included in the legislation.

"There's going to be industries all over the place that are going to try to jump on this, and that's going to be harmful and potentially kill the bill," he said.

The supermarket wine bill is supported by both Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

Harwell said she's pleased that the two sides have decided to work on a compromise given that alcohol bill generally has a tough path toward passage in the General Assembly.

"We're really going to have to make sure the members are comfortable with this, and the liquor store owners understand we're not trying to put them out of business," she said.

Harwell said she agreed with having the measure focus on supermarkets.

"What the vast majority of Tennesseans want is wine in grocery stores, period," she said. "And anything other than that, if it hurts the chances of us passing it, I see as a spoiler."

The exclusion of convenience stores could make the measure more palatable to urban lawmakers, who have expressed concern about the sale of inexpensive fortified wines like MD 20/20 - widely known as "Mad Dog" - at gas stations and corner shops.

Ramsey said he doesn't have any particular concerns about wine being sold at convenience stores or large retailers, but that he's willing to go along with the change in the interest of passing the bill this year.

"The goal at the end is ... grocery stores would have the right to sell this," he said. "This is a commerce issue to bring sales to Tennessee. All those other things are ancillary."

Both Ramsey and Harwell said they reject a proposal by liquor stores to phase in the change over the course of five years. Harwell said she's sympathetic to the need for liquor store owners to change their business plans to accommodate a change in the law, but said one or two years should be enough to manage the transition.

Ramsey said he wants voters to be able to decide by this year whether they want wine in supermarkets.