Spirited Debate: Why Won't Legislators Listen to Constituents Instead of Liquor Lobbyists?

Consumers would like the convenience of picking up a bottle of wine the same place they buy steaks and potatoes. That convenience would lead to increased wine sales and a corresponding increase in state tax revenue.

But there is a concerted effort to prevent the Legislature from finally following two dozen other states and allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores. Various reasons are offered. Let's consider them.

We don't really want to have wine in grocery stores because grocery stores are visited by kids. This is pretty weak. Most supermarkets have a beer case about 50 feet long, without any doors. So put the wine on a shelf behind the beer. Okay?

But convenience store clerks cannot be depended on to properly check ID. Best to leave wine in the liquor stores. That's a bizarre argument because these same clerks sell beer all day long and we depend on them to check ID. I don't know where legislators shop but any supermarket I go to, they have to look at your ID and enter your birthday into the computer before you can buy beer.

Since wine is regulated by the ABC and not a local beer board, wine sales in grocery stores could be limited to counties that have liquor sales. The legislation should also allow for a local referendum on whether the residents want it.

Police chiefs have opposed wine in grocery stores saying it would be easier for students to get possession of this dangerous product. Have they ever heard of keggers? They even brought up the infamous "butt chugging" incident at UT that involved wine. Gee, how did the students get it since they couldn't buy it in a grocery store?

The favorite defense cited by some legislators is that wine in supermarkets will hurt "small businesses" in their districts. First of all, these businesses have had a monopoly for decades so they ought to have the wherewithal to withstand competition. Liquor stores also ought to be allowed to sell beer and food and snacks and anything else they care to stock. They will still have a monopoly on hard liquor.

The Legislature could also repeal the law that says you can only own one liquor store. This would allow owners to have more locations, buy in bulk, and be better able to compete. (The idea that no one owns more than one liquor store is an inside joke.)

But if mom-and-pop stores are a concern, there are a couple of things that can be done. Put a square-footage requirement on the stores that sell wine to ensure that only large supermarkets can offer it. I doubt most convenience stores will have the space to offer up a good selection of Merlot and Chardonnays anyway. And the rationale for wine in grocery stores is convenience for shoppers buying food.

Supermarkets would likely carry mid-priced table wines. Liquor stores could continue to compete on the high end of the wine market. It's not likely you will be able to buy your 1982 Lafitte Rothschild at Food City or Kroger. Your local liquor store can also advise you on what kind of wines you might like, what to serve at a party and introduce you to good values for the money. They have expertise you won't get at your local supermarket. They can "add value," as they say over at the business school.

Since Prohibition days, the liquor monopoly has made common cause with churches to oppose liberalization of liquor laws. In the old days it was bootleggers trying to keep counties dry. In the current fight you have prohibitionists making common cause with liquor-store owners.

The state's liquor laws are a hodgepodge that have evolved over the decades. Laws vary from county to county. Or within the county, i.e. Pigeon Forge versus Gatlinburg. All state liquor laws ought to be reviewed, include the liquor wholesale rules.

But in the meantime, give consumers what they want. Or, at least let them vote on it.