Liquor Stores Rebuff Proposal for Wine in Tenn. Groceries

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An effort to reduce opposition to supermarket wine sales in Tennessee has so far failed to change the minds of the liquor store owners who stand to lose the most out of the proposal.

Under the bill taking shape before the Legislature convenes next week, local referendums would determine if wine could be sold alongside beer in grocery and convenience stores.

In exchange, sponsors say liquor stores could branch out to sell items, like beer, mixers, ice and snacks. The measure could also end the current law that allows owners to operate only one liquor store in the state.

Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol, a main sponsor of the bill, said he expects improved prospects for the measure because of a growing number of like-minded Republicans in the Legislature.

"You have a group of people who've been elected who want to remove shackles from competition and let the marketplace decide," he said. "This is one of those prime examples of letting businesses compete like every other business."

But Chip Christianson, owner of J. Barleycorn's in Nashville and former president of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, said he and his colleagues didn't buy their stores with designs on starting chains. And wine connoisseurs would ultimately lose out if supermarkets started carrying the best-selling wines, he said.

"Those bread-and-butter wines pay my rent and my electric bill," he said. "If I it don't have those to sell, I cannot carry these esoteric brands that don't turn over very often."

Lundberg said across the state line from his home in Virginia, wine sales in supermarkets haven't ended the purpose of liquor stores. Christianson acknowledged that while the change wouldn't kill his business, it would likely force him to reduce staff. And stores close to supermarkets might not be so lucky, he said.

"I can absolutely certify to you that some stores will go under," he said. "Because the pie's not getting bigger, all you're doing is cutting up the pie into more pieces."

Supporters of the change disagree, arguing that greater availability would also drive up overall wine sales.

Christianson also stressed that the proposal wouldn't be limited to large supermarket chains, meaning inexpensive fortified wines such as MD 20/20 — widely known as "Mad Dog" — would be available at lightly-staffed convenience stores.

"The grocers want to have this picture of the soccer mom walking through the Kroger aisle, casually picking up a bottle of chardonnay for dinner," he said. "But there's also that group of teenagers in there trying to finagle a bottle Mad Dog 20/20 from the Mapco. And that's a problem."

Allowing liquor stores to sell other items would also make it more difficult for clerks to stop underage drinkers.

"I don't want my guys focused on selling ice or corkscrews," he said. "I don't people coming into my store who are underage."

Dan Haskell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Stores Association, noted that both the House and Senate speakers have lined up behind the proposal, causing greater concern among opponents than in years past.

"I think they're nervous this year, because this year I think we can get to the floor," he said. "In the past, the committees and subcommittees were so unfriendly. The support of the speakers is critical as it relates to who's on those committees."