My husband and I were in the process of building our house, so there were four of us living in a small apartment while we awaited it’s completion. One particularly stressful day I headed to the grocery store for a few dinner items and a nice bottle of wine. I quickly located the meat and vegetables I needed but walked back and forth in that store for 15 minutes before finally asking a sales clerk where on God’s green earth did they hide the wine?!! The clerk stifled a laugh and informed me that I could not purchase wine there, and gave me directions to the nearest package store. I was shocked and by now more than a little miffed, but I made the trek across town to the store that offered wine and liquor. I made my selection, took it to the register and prepared to pay for it. No big deal, really, until I remembered that my corkscrew was still packed away in storage. I asked the young woman where they kept the corkscrews and that was when I learned that I would have to travel back the grocery store to purchase one. I’m pretty sure I slung every swear word I know (and even invented a few) at that poor clerk yet she just smiled and said, “welcome to Tennessee.”
Like it or not, the demographics of this State are a-changin. Transplants from all over the Lower 48 are coming to Tennessee, lured by our mild weather and the relatively low cost of living. They bring with them certain expectations of convenience. I understand this, as I too am a transplant. ( Its probably worse for me, since I used to live in Las Vegas, where you can buy liquor almost anywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)
It seems there is now a movement afoot to help consumers find their precious Pinot Noir in their local grocery store aisle. It is by no means grass roots, as it is coordinated by the Grocers lobby. The effort is serious and well run, and makes good use of Social Media. Nonetheless, when I first heard about it, I said to myself that it was about time. What could be the issue here?
There are issues. Tons of them, in fact, and a few that gave me pause. So, intrepid reporter that I am, I decided to dig around a bit. Maybe I should have opened that bottle of 1999 Chateau Le Pin Pomerol I have squirreled away instead. (Nah, I can’t really afford a wine that nice, what with its luxurious fullness derived from the downy levels of mocha, black cherry and currant flavors, after all. Usually, I just mix equal parts Champagne and Ripple to make what Fred Sanford used to call Champipple.) But I digress.
My first call was an obvious one…what do the liquor stores think of the proposal? Wow, the vehemence would make a Tea Partier cringe. In short, they don’t like it one bit. Who could blame them? For years they have enjoyed a monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits in Tennessee. Some expanded, some hired extra help. Then, after years of investing time and money, corporate grocers threaten to cut a wide swath through their market share. A real concern for them is that giant retailers will be able to negotiate favorable bulk purchases from suppliers and undercut their price. Except, not really, which I’ll explain later. By itself, that is not going to persuade lawmakers to vote it down, after all, where were these lawmakers when thousands of mom and pop hardware stores and pharmacies went under once Walmart came to town?
Speaking of laws, it helps to know what a couple of them are here in Tennessee. I’m listing them in no particular order. First, an individual may only own one liquor store at a time. A married couple can own one in each of their names, as is the case with Bentley Parrish and his wife, who own Warehouse Liquors and Express Liquors, respectively, here in Springfield. They may only sell wine and spirits. No mixers, no cigarettes, and by God no corkscrews. The one exception seems to be lottery tickets, which the Parrish’s elected not to do. (Mr. Parrish told me it seemed silly to ask the man trying to buy a $40 bottle of vodka to wait while he helps another customer decide which $2 scratch-off “feels lucky” that day) In addition, store owners may not buy more product than they can warehouse on-site. It is illegal for them to store product somewhere else, as it must be transported by a licensed distributor only. This is important, because unless the law is re-written, big box retailers would be bound by the same rules, and this would prohibit them from making those favorable bulk purchases I mentioned above. (I could not get a single large grocery chain to comment on this, but its unlikely that Kroger or Publix would be granted a blanket license, besides, they might not want it as sanctions against an errant store could be imposed chain-wide)
My next call was to some distributors, who I was certain would be all for this legislation. I talked to the owner of Horizon Wine and Spirits, Mr. Tommy Bernard, who, it turns out, is also the President of the Wholesale Wine and Spirit Association of Tennessee. Mr. Bernard was patient and accommodating and answered my questions between meetings. I started out by asking him what he thought about allowing wine sales in grocery stores. “I’m a businessman, to be sure, so the opportunity to sell more product will likely be good for me and my employees. But I enjoy a good relationship with hundreds of store owners that I have been doing business with for years.” That was not his only conflict with the proposal. He had sincere concerns about “creating” more wine drinkers by mainstreaming (my word) wine. “We, more than most people, understand the pitfalls of this product. I’ve seen the damage done to relationships and lives, and my worst nightmare is waking up to a photograph in the paper of dead teenagers and a bottle of our product on the floorboard.” He went on to talk rather openly about some other problems that would have to be resolved beyond those grounded in and by his sense of morality. For example, what constitutes a “grocery store”? Is a gas station/convenience store that sells milk a potential new customer? If so, while that might seem like thousands of new accounts, he has only X number of trucks, drivers, and hours in a day. After the initial order, is he just spreading out the number of accounts he has, but making roughly the same money? It isn’t like once this law passes, millions of new wine drinkers would suddenly appear.
Proponents of the bill like to point to the increased revenue flowing into State coffers, but, really, after all these new accounts fill their initial order and the subsequent spike in tax revenue occurs, what evidence is there that suggests it will continue month after month? My opinion is that it will increase tax revenue, both on the wholesale and retail side, but it will take decades to be realized, since it will in fact be dependent on new wine drinkers moving here or coming of age.
I decided to go and visit my local wine and spirit store and ask a few more questions. I arrived at Warehouse Liquors armed with ideas on how to best write a new law allowing grocery stores to sell wine. What about a floor on prices, for instance? What about allowing him to offer other products in his establishment? What if it were written into the law that wholesalers could not tier their prices beyond x number of cases? I may have even chastised him a bit for being unwilling to consider how to forge ahead if and when this becomes law. (A bold move on my part, considering I bummed a smoke from him while I ranted, and I kept expecting him to push a button to summon his Kobe Bryant-sized counter clerk to forcibly remove me from his office) He waited until I was finished, shook his head, and asked me a simple question:
“What is it that I could stock here that would make this a destination for you?” (I soooo wanted to say, rubbers?) But honestly I couldn’t think of a single thing that wasn’t available in any grocery store. He shot down each of my ideas about working out an equitable new law by stating, “there is no way to structure this new law that will eliminate the impulse-buy”. And he was right. I thanked him for his time and left even more confused.
Now, long-time readers of The Chronicles will tell you I’m slightly left of Che, and that is probably true. I do think that certain industries should be tightly regulated. Energy companies, banking and securities, food and pharmaceuticals to name a few. But wine? In the end, I’m inclined to think of wine as more than a commodity, or an alcoholic beverage. It may not be food, but to some people, its as crucial to a meal as the right spices.
Wine is a culture as much as it is a business. It has its own language and etiquette. It may share some of the same fermented properties as scotch or gin, but dammit, its just different. I know small retailers will have to scramble if this law passes, they will have to sell the idea that the service they provide is worth a buck or two a bottle, and that local dollars should stay local. Small farms are facing that fight as I write this. But the reality is that we consumers want choice, and convenience, and a buck or two saved when we can. It also strikes me as unfair to prohibit grocery stores from selling an item people clearly want, in an effort to protect a handful of other businesses.
But thats me. If you want more information from either side, you go here to visit Red, White, and Food, and you can go here to see what the Tennessee Wine and Spirit Retailers Association has to say on the matter.