A bill that would allow Tennesseans to purchase wine in grocery stores has stalled in the state Senate. The committee heard testimony from both sides of the argument on Tuesday, but postponed its vote until a meeting two weeks from now.
Tuesday's testimony once again uncorked a long-time debate over the ability to sell wine in grocery stores. Senate Bill 0316 would allow food retailers to sell wine if they obtain a state license. Licenses would only be granted to those food retailers located in areas that permit the establishment of liquor stores.
The proposal uses the term "food retailer," but specifies that the bill would not allow wine to be sold at roadside food stands or vending machines.
The bill would have a major impact on liquor stores in Tennessee. Establishments like Downtown Wine and Spirits in Knoxville depend on wine sales for 60 percent of the store's total business.
"Big businesses are promoting the change. Essentially Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, and other large stores want to sell booze," said Shane Pack, manager of Downtown Wine and Spirits. "They don't care how it might affect a smaller business that built its whole model around the current laws."
Supporters of the Senate bill said it will provide a shot to the economy.
"Anywhere from $19 million to $38 million would be brought in state revenue at a time when we need it the most," said Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association. "Our retailers are extremely frustrated to be unable to provide a product that the overwhelming majority of their customers want to buy at their locations."
In a recent statewide poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University, nearly 70 percent of those who responded support changing the law to allow grocery stores to sell wine. Pack said he understands the public's opinion regarding wine sales.
"I grew up in a state that sold wine in grocery stores. I also think a small store like ours would still provide a lot of great wine and products that you would never find in a supermarket," said Pack. "I just want the playing field to be level. If they let grocery stores sell wine, they should have to do a lot of the things required of us to sell wine. We should also be able to sell products other than things with an alcohol content higher than 6.3 percent."
Pack said the current laws do not allow liquor stores to sell many popular light beers found in grocery stores. He is also unable to sell sodas, bottled water, or food products.
"Retail liquor stores in other states sell everything from lottery tickets to magazines. I cannot even sell corkscrews that open wine bottles," said Pack.
Proposals to legalize wine sales in grocery stores have failed to make it through the Tennessee legislature for the last three years. The main opposition to the legislation comes from liquor store owners who are currently the main option for consumers to purchase wine legally in Tennessee.
If you cannot buy wine in the grocery store, pretty soon you may be able to have it delivered to your mailbox.
Monday night the Senate voted 21-7 in favor of allowing direct-order wine deliveries in Tennessee. A House committee is scheduled to examine the issue this week.