Tennessee Sour Grapes

State liquor laws are in need of reform

Talibama

You would think that people in the wine business would want to expand their market. You would think that people in the wine business would want to promote the production of wine and encourage its sale. The answer is that the liquor industry is controlled by liquor wholesalers. The iron control of the distribution of wine and liquor is preventing the growth of the wine business, but the sales that do occur inure to the benefit of the people who pay the salaries of the liquor lobbyists.

There is nothing more insane than liquor laws, a patchwork of regulations and strictures that have evolved since the repeal of prohibition. If you want an illustration, look at the wine business in Tennessee.

Vineyards and winemaking nationwide are booming. Many consumers have switched from drinking hard liquor to wine, and more and more people are developing a taste for fine dining (wine included) as evidenced by the growth of cooking shows and popular cookbooks. The Internet has opened up the possibility for wineries to market directly to consumers. Such sales are hampered by state legislatures determined to protect local liquor wholesalers.

It has been suggested that East Tennessee farmers, being bought out of the tobacco business, be encouraged to grow grapes instead. Growing grapes isn't easy, but it's easier than making good wine. Small farmers can't afford to buy the equipment to make it. There's a bill in the Legislature, however, that would enable a new industry to sprout. The bill would allow a farmer to grow grapes, send them to an existing winery where the wine would be made, bottled, labeled and all taxes paid. Then the wine would be shipped back to the vineyard where it could be offered for sale. The number of acres in Tennessee now devoted to growing grapes can fit onto one average-sized dairy farm. No wholesale growth in acreage will occur unless there is a market.

Internet purchases of wine from other states raises the issue of lost tax revenue to the state. I don't think it's enough to matter. But why can't you use the Internet to purchase wine from a Tennessee winery? There is a bill that would allow that. It would be a boon to the fledgling winery business in Tennessee. There is also a bill that would allow Tennessee wineries to sell directly to retailers. Neither of these bills has much chance of passing.

What I know about wine is pretty much limited to whether it comes in a box or a bottle and whether it's white or red. But wine fanciers tell me that the selection available in your local liquor store is not that great. Boutique wineries' products are not available because they can't afford to pay the wholesalers, and up to 50 percent of the wines now available are not sold in Tennessee. If there is a particular wine you really like, and it's not in the local store, you're out of luck. That's especially true of high-priced vintages. Here in the 21st century, it seems ridiculous not to be able to go online and order it from California if you want it.

In many other states you can go to your local Kroger, and when you buy all the fixings for a nice dinner, you can also pick up a bottle of wine to suit. Not in Tennessee. Even though the grocery has a beer section, wine is out of the question. You have to make another stop at a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. You can even buy a bottle of wine in the grocery store in Talibama.

What's the difference? Why is it necessary to go to a liquor store to buy wine when you can buy beer in any convenience store and most grocery stores? Can you imagine the number of sales of wine lost because of the inconvenience? Wouldn't wine sales be a tremendous boost to the small grocer in a neighborhood like downtown? It might be the margin of profit for a small operator.

You would think that people in the wine business would want to expand their market. You would think that people in the wine business would want to promote the production of wine and encourage its sale. The answer is that the liquor industry is controlled by liquor wholesalers. The iron control of the distribution of wine and liquor is preventing the growth of the wine business, but the sales that do occur inure to the benefit of the people who pay the salaries of the liquor lobbyists.

Things are changing in the wine business. There is a case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging prohibitions on wine sales by Internet as a violation of interstate commerce. The suit is being brought by a group with the website freethegrapes.com. The day will come when there will be a free flow of wine from state to state. It's time we updated our laws and got some sense.

Tobacco farming is going away. Dairies close down every year. If the state Legislature is concerned about new crops for farmers, promoting new business and growing the economy, then they need to pass enabling legislation. Get out of the way and see if a decent wine market can be developed in the state.

Perhaps giving the consumer a break with the convenience of grocery store sales, as well as Internet sales, will be a byproduct. Besides, I have no doubt that there will be a study published soon that proves that wine not only prevents heart attacks, but cures cancer.

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