TN's rural counties slow wine bill

9:51 AM, Jan 29, 2013   |    comments
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By Josh Adams, The Tennessean

In his six years in the Tennessee General Assembly, Sen. Jack Johnson said, no other issue has stirred as much fervor as the question of whether wine should be sold in grocery stores.

That's probably not so for legislators from the 27 counties where wine can't be purchased at any retail outlets, he said.

And that is what continues to slow momentum of a proposal that proponents paint as the will of the people.

"There are a lot of rural counties out there that ... don't care, or they don't want package (sales)," Johnson said.

All four of Williamson County's state lawmakers spent considerable time on the issue during an informal monthly public chat Monday morning. Wine is absent from grocery store shelves, they said, not because of lobbyists' clout, but because there are so many communities where package liquor sales aren't an option.

One possible solution, according to Johnson and his Williamson colleagues, is allowing municipal governments to hold a referendum and decide the matter locally. But that also would have to be approved by state lawmakers.

In the House, Republican Caucus leader Glen Casada said he can count about 30 colleagues who will vote against any measure that would increase access to alcohol. The issue for them, said Casada, is one of public safety.

Rep. Charles Sargent suggested there are 25 to 27 state representatives who would reject any expansion of alcohol sales.

"There's a perception that the liquor lobby is preventing this," Casada said.

In Tennessee, liquor and wine are sold only in liquor stores. Beer may be sold in groceries, drugstores and convenience stores.

Though no bill to expand wine sales has been introduced in the new legislative session, it is unlikely such a measure would force alcohol into dry counties. That means the broader availability of wine would apply only in communities where it is already sold.

Tax gain questioned

Bard Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine and Spirits in Franklin, not surprisingly is adamantly opposed to expanding wine sales into grocery stores.

He rejects the assertion made by some proponents that wine sales - and, accordingly, state revenue - would grow tremendously if allowed in grocery stores. Quillman argues that unless wine is pushed into untapped markets - such as areas that don't now allow package liquor sales - those figures don't add up.

"You're only going to put stores where there are stores already," Quillman said. "You're only going to cannibalize one store in favor of another."

It's possible that lawmakers might also allow liquor retailers like Quillman to sell snacks, bagged ice, drink mixes and other items as a compromise to allowing grocery stores to encroach on their customer base. According to Quillman, who attended yesterday's forum with the legislators, it's just another poorly conceived idea.

"That does nothing for me," he said. "Where do I put it? Can I only sell it to people that are over 21?"

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