published Friday, December 28th, 2012

Cook: Pandora's box of wine

Drinking a glass of wine tonight? Got a bottle picked out for New Year's Eve?

Seems like a good idea -- a more convenient one -- to sell wine in grocery stores. We ought to be able to go in and buy our dog food, Raisin Bran and pinot noir, all in one stop.

But selling wine in grocery stores -- which continues to attract the attention of Nashville legislators -- is kind of like a political version of what happens when we drink too much: Things aren't always as they seem.

"If I didn't know as much as I do about this, I would think I should be able to go into a grocery store and buy wine," said Chris Bratcher, owner of Riverside Wine and Spirits. "But what people don't understand is that you've got this underlying set of regulations in place."

You must be a Tennessee resident to own a liquor store here. You can own only one. (And you're forbidden from running for public office).

You can't operate your store within 500 feet of a church or school. No one under 21 can walk in. You're forbidden to sell anything -- not even a bottle opener -- other than wine or spirits.

Putting wine in grocery stores corkscrews local liquor store owners because it gives such massive and unfair advantage to out-of-state grocery store corporations that don't have to play by the same rules.

Plus, it opens a Pandora's box of wine problems.

If, say, Bi-Lo and Kroger (not prohibited from being located within 500 feet of a school or church) sell wine, then why not liquor? Why not on Sunday?

What about gas stations? They sell food. Shouldn't they sell wine and whiskey, too?

How about CVS and Walgreens? They sell food. And beer. Why not wine? Jagermeister alongside the cough syrup? (They're so similar anyway).

The only way to do this fairly and justly is to erase all the liquor regulations. Any booze, anywhere, anytime.

"It's not a level playing field if you tell mom-and-pop operators we're going to leave your rules intact, but we're going to let other stores carry the product you've made your business on," Bratcher said.

It's misleading to claim wine in grocery stores would increase tax revenue. More people won't suddenly start buying wine; they'll just start buying it in different places. Which means the old places -- locally owned liquor stores -- will suffer. Badly.

"There is a reason there are no family-owned grocery stores left," said Bratcher.

He predicts 30 percent of local liquor stores could go out of business. The folks at Athens Distributing estimate the same. Terrell Hurley, owner of Riley's Wine & Spirits, predicts 20 percent.

"If we lose half of our [wine sales], then we're going to have to lay off people," said Hurley, who has been in the local liquor industry for decades. "If you really want to drive your own economy, why would you give [away] a piece of that economy? No grocery store chain is headquartered in Tennessee. Not one."

If state legislators are responsible for the well-being of their constituents, then allowing wine in grocery stores -- which then ship more revenue out of state -- violates that social contract.

I've seen studies that show wine isn't cheaper in grocery stores. I've heard it will be easier for teens to buy alcohol. Grocery stores won't stock thoughtful wines.

All in the name of convenience?

When I first heard the idea, I liked it, too. One stop is easier than two.

But I've come to enjoy stopping by the liquor store, where folks know and understand wine. It's one of those important -- and increasingly rare -- social interactions, where commerce, personalities and neighborhoods intersect.

And making an extra stop to spend $10 on a bottle of wine crafted from grapes grown half a world away and turned into one of the most delicious drinks on earth is not really an inconvenience.

It ought to be something we savor.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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daytonsdarwin said...

Have a store? Sell liquor, wine, beer. The liquor lobby needs breaking.

I've never seen a wino in a liquor store ask about the nuances between Mad Dog 4040 and Thunderbird, the proper serving temperature, and which wine is best with sardines or potted meat and crackers.

All wine, liquors, and beers are subjective in tastes. Let people buy where and when they want. All liquor lobbys do is give money to the likes of Ward Crutchfield and Wamps and local councils and commissions to keep the monopoly money flowing and the corruption going.

December 28, 2012 at 8:49 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

The wine sellers are adopting a "protectionist" position that restricts free trade so they can avoid competition. I assume they aren't Republicans.

California, Virginia, Georgia...the list of states where wine is sold in grocery stores goes on, I doubt the incidence of sales to minors is higher there. If you've purchased wine in Georgia, you know they require more strict examination of the license/ID than Tennessee. Drive to Atlanta and there are wine and liquor stores everywhere. As for tax revenue I suspect the change is relatively revenue neutral, we still pay sales tax. It would be nice to compare employee benefits in the "mom and pop" (sic) wine stores with grocery stores.

The laws about setback from schools and sales on Sunday are good talking points but in reality, you can buy a beer just about anywhere on Sunday, including grocery stores and the local convenience store. The laws in Tennessee prohibiting sale of hard liquor and wine on holidays and Sundays while allowing beer sales are quaint, at best.

From a capitalist point of view I understand why the self-interest of a local wine store owner motivates a fight against grocery stores selling wine, but competition always breeds a better buy for the consumer. The owners of the wine stores that meet the consumer demands will continue to make enough money to keep food on the table and clothes in the closet.

The argument of rather than limiting sales in grocery stores the state should open the gates to sale anytime and anywhere is a fanciful "the sky is falling "argument . The other argument against wine in grocery stores is to make availability of alcohol more restricted. To take that second argument further why not eliminate wine sellers other than a few state stores. Perhaps we should adopt practices such as seen in Pennsylvania (the last time I was there), beer can only be bought by the case or keg at distributors except in bars where six packs can be purchased, and hard liquor can be purchased only in state stores?

As much as I enjoy a glass of wine, from a public health and societal cost perspective I'll wager alcohol ranks in the neighborhood of tobacco (and guns).

December 28, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.
Oz said...

I would rather have Trade Joe's and Costco in Chattanooga. They will provide more jobs than the liquor stores we lose. The consumer wins with competition.

December 28, 2012 at 9:25 a.m.
tifosi said...

Great article that certainly affected the way I think on the subject. I do think that the laws on the books since prohibition have to be revamped. They have not kept up with the times.

December 28, 2012 at 10:06 a.m.
jesse said...

The grocery stores are not going to carry the high end wines like you find in Bratchers store!(Prob.the most compleat line in Chatta!)

Mostly table wine and such that sells for $10 or $12 a bottle!(or less!)

I usually make one trip a month and stock up on all my booze so it's still the liquor store for me!

December 28, 2012 at 10:26 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

inquiringmind said...

The wine sellers are adopting a "protectionist" position that restricts free trade so they can avoid competition. I assume they aren't Republicans.

Wrong. There's no difference between Democrats or Republicans when it comes to special interests. Crony capitalists come in both flavors. Republicans rank as high as Democrats when it comes to protecting their interests.

Life Care of Cleveland, under investigation for billions in Medicare fraud is a great example of Republican special interests and crony capitalism while causing pain, injury, and quickened death to their patients (Medicare cash cows).

Life Care preaches continually about doing the work of Jesus, flying the flag, full of patriotic flatulence, while pushing legislation that favors them, eliminating small entrepreneurs, and sucking vast sums of taxpayer money under the guise of capitalism.

Life Care is as phony a free enterprise endeavor as is Castro's Cuba. Just different locales and dictators. Life Care is also a major contributor to the Republican Party with contributions to Wamp, Vital, Corker, Alexander, and other big-time Republicans.

It's not about party idealism; it's about money and bending the American public over the nearest railing for a good screwing while flying the flag and preaching about God and Jesus. This is not about free enterprise; it's about rape.

This is the American way of both Republicans and Democrats and the special interests they both serve.

December 28, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.
fechancellor said...

Almost never is the time I spend with a knowledgeable person at a liquor store who can tell me anything of substance about a $10.00 to $25.00 bottle of wine other than "a lot of people are buying it." Jaxs on Market Street is the notable exception.

Mr. Bratcher, your take on your claimed "social contract" extended to its limits would prohibit purchasing any product on the Internet sold by retail stores in the Volunteer State.

Mr. Cooke, my personal survey of the wines in grocery stores in Georgia I typically buy in my aforementioned price range can be had at least $1.00 to $3.00 less expensive than at liquor stores I frequent at home. The added bonus having picked a bottle in the grocery store is I'm immediately free to formulate a complimentary dinner plan.

Mr. Bratcher's "Social Contract" is nothing more than a legally enforced cartel protected by any means necessary by Tennessee's powerful liquor lobby.

December 28, 2012 at 11:35 a.m.
jesse said...

Back about 12 years ago i lived on my boat at Ross's Landing and since it was close i went into Jaxx to stock up!THAT HAD TO BE the stinkingest place of buis.i have EVER been in!The carpet looked like it had NEVER been cleaned and the odor would make your eyes water!Walked out and never went back!!

December 28, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

"Mr. Bratcher's "Social Contract" is nothing more than a legally enforced cartel protected by any means necessary by Tennessee's powerful liquor lobby." - fechancellor

Precisely! Mr. Bratcher's reasoning is not about what's best for the public or for the economy or for the state but what will continue to make the most money for a very small number of people in their legalized cartel.

There are only 14 states that don't allow wine to be sold in grocery stores. All those other states didn't seem to be have a lot of trouble maneuvering around their "social contracts." And I don't remember hearing or reading about any major economic setbacks in those states where wine is sold in their grocery stores.

It's laughable to try to make the argument that jobs will be lost in the liquor stores if we open up the market. One Costco alone in Tennessee would create more jobs than would be lost by all of the small liquor stores combined. While I wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize the mom-and-pop places, an enterprise like Costco would generate truly good, well paying jobs that would definitely be a boon to the economy.

As for Mr. Cook's comment that "I've come to enjoy stopping by the liquor store, where folks know and understand wine," that almost made me laugh, too. Granted, there are a few liquor stores that do have owners and staff who know their wines, but the vast majority of them are staffed by part-time, minimum wage cashiers who are just manning the registers and know very little, if anything, about the wines they're selling.

Unless you're Mr. Bratcher or one of the small number of moneyed interests who benefit personally from this "social contract," there is no good reason for maintaining the status quo and keeping these antiquated laws on the books regarding how and where we can buy wine. It's time to do the sensible, forward thinking, and fair thing and open up the market to the wine industry, the grocery stores, and the consumers.

December 28, 2012 at 2:23 p.m.
GameOn said...

Tennessee is losing tax dollars to Georgia in a big way and I would rather have those tax dollars stay here. All of those Costco tax dollars across the line in Georgia could have been in Hamilton County.

December 28, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
moon4kat said...

Where is the evidence that the State of Tennessee and its citizens are benefiting from the antiquated, protectionist system cobbled together over the last 100 years? Those old laws (and the lobbyists who want to keep them) are restricting modern commerce, and pushing new business across the state line into Georgia. Time for a change that reflects current reality and wise practicality.

December 28, 2012 at 10:12 p.m.
Ruger4man said...

If Costco, Walmart, and Publix begin selling wine, the money leaves our great state, and goes to their headquarters. ANOTHER reason the current system is the best way.

December 29, 2012 at 8:54 a.m.
AndrewLohr said...

Crony capitalism for Jax? Naw, let groceries sell the stuff too, though in return get rid of some regulations on liquor stores--let 'em sell other things, let 'em at least co-op if not form chains. MAYbe tax grocery wine a little more, and none within 500 feet of a school, if the cronies wanna give the liquor stores a little help and equal treatment?

December 29, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.
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