Wine

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I recently spoke with Gail Kerr about the inconvenience of having to go to a different store to buy wine rather than being able to buy it when and where I buy my food. Here are my unabridged thoughts on the subject.

Why are you a supporter of Red, White and Food?

RWF was established to give a voice to the consumer. In recent years, similar grass-roots campaigns have proven to be vital change agents, and I don’t think it’s any secret that change is needed—and overdue—here in Tennessee. Many of our residents have relocated here from other states and are surprised, bemused, and eventually annoyed that they can’t buy a bottle of wine along with other dinner ingredients in their local grocery store. Even those of us who haven’t lived in areas that allow for this have traveled enough to be able to appreciate the convenience of such “luxury.” In addition, we are able to witness in these other communities how grocery stores and specialty liquor stores somehow manage to peacefully coexist. Red, White & Food allows members of the general public to communicate their ideas to legislators just as loudly and insistently as the liquor lobby has over the years. At the end of the day, informed dialogue is always useful.

Do you find it especially inconvenient this time of year to have to make an extra stop for your holiday dinners and festivities?

Like most consumers of any product, I enjoy having options. If I want a special bottle of wine for a gift or to pair with a particular course, I have favorite wine retailers upon whom I can rely for wide selections and/or recommendations. On the other hand, sometimes I just need something with which to make spaghetti sauce or sangria. It doesn’t need to be anything special and, if I lived in another state, I could grab a $9 bottle on the next aisle at Kroger or Publix. It’s always a hassle to get in the car and drive to another location. It wastes time and gas and adds extra stress to the everyday running of errands.

But here we are at the holidays, when everything is more stressful. We have less time, less disposable income, and we encounter bigger crowds in shopping centers. The inconvenience factor has now increased exponentially. I’m something of a procrastinator, so I this year left my Thanksgiving shopping for that Wednesday before. Of course the stores were mobbed, but getting to and from a liquor store near my office added an extra hour to my commute, not counting time spent looking for parking, waiting in line, etc. That’s an hour I would prefer to have spent at home with my family, obviously.

The other reason multiple stops create a major inconvenience for me is because I have a newborn. It’s something of a production whenever he accompanies me on errands, not to mention that I want to minimize his exposure to lots of people when we’re right in the thick of flu and RSV season. Going to the store for essentials has turned into more of a complex process, as any new parent would attest, and these days I critically evaluate whether an extra stop is really worth it. Many times I now skip that extra stop. So if the prevailing wisdom of liquor store owners is that grocery stores being able to sell wine would result in a huge drop in their business, well, they’re already seeing a decrease from me by default.

I am grateful that I can have wine shipped to my home now if I want—though I’d much prefer my dollars stay close to home.

The organization is going to try a different tactic with this coming legislature. Instead of changing state law, they are going to seek legislation that would allow cities and counties to hold referendums on wine in grocery stores. Is that something you would vote for?

What’s positive about going the route of local referendums as opposed to wholesale change in state laws is that it gives a community a choice in the matter and protects its politicians from having to make decisions that, while appeasing their constituents, are potentially unpopular with some of their largest campaign contributors. While the state laws governing beer, liquor, and accoutrements are archaic and in desperate need of overhaul for the benefit of consumers AND proprietors, this tactic may very well be a good compromise. Of course, this would have no effect on communities that don’t already have liquor stores, but it could really benefit those that do, particularly rural areas where residents have to drive further to have access to any kind of retail.

Yes, this is a measure I would vote for. My town inexplicably decided all liquor stores should be required to sit within a certain number of feet from Main Street. My closest grocery store is roughly two-and-a-half miles from Main Street, so if such a referendum were to pass there, it would certainly help local businesses and their customers. On a larger scale, it would enhance the desirability of these communities for development by retailers who currently choose not to do business there. (I’ve often said Trader Joe’s or Fresh Market would make a killing in that county.) Finally, such a move would bring pricing more in line with that of other states.

If I were able to wave a magic wand and right the wrongs of Prohibition-era laws, I would. Until Amazon is able to ship me that wand (tax-free still, right?), I’d settle for this.

>Last weekend I went with some girlfriends to a restaurant that a longtime friend manages.  (It’s a Nashville Original.)  I hadn’t seen this friend in a few months so when the subject of wine came up, I had to ask him what he thought about the wine bill–not only because I wanted his personal opinion but also because he deals with so many distributors due to his job and I thought he’d have an interesting perspective.

I was not disappointed, as he gave me a point which I had previously not considered regarding the long reach of the liquor lobby.

As you may know, Red, White & Food has created a PAC to help further the movement.  As we get closer to election season, they will likely want to start hosting various events to gather supporters, explain the platform, network, etc.  I had thought of suggesting my friend’s restaurant for this purpose since the location is so convenient.

Here’s the thing: unlike other cities, bar and restaurant proprietors are required to use all five Nashville distributors if they want a fully-stocked bar.  Different liquor companies are licensed to different local distributors so you can’t just pick and choose who you want to work with.  You can’t piss one off and just use their competitor.  They aren’t actually competing with each other, you see.  I hadn’t really focused on that fact as much as I should have.  For that reason, my friend explained, he can’t host an event of that nature.  I mean, physically he could rent out a private room to RW&F but could provide no sponsorship, no help with food.  Even having the restaurant’s name attached to such an event would paint him in an unfavorable light to the Big Bad Five.

Wow, no wonder they’re fighting this bill so hard.  I knew the liquor lobby was powerful in this state but to actually wield control over your clients in such a way?  That’s pretty unmatched in any other commercial arena.

This just strengthens my resolve to effect change, though.  The unbalance of power in this state has no place in modern society. 

As a sidebar, this conversation also enlightened me to the fact that many casual  legislative observers aren’t necessarily aware of the extent of change being proposed.  Not everyone realizes that the point of this project is not to press a button and suddenly be able to buy wine at Publix.  It’s important to note that an overhaul of the entire system is in order.  If this was only about that one part of the issue, I could totally see the objection to taking money away from small businesses.  But since that is not the case, we need to do a better job of educating people about the intent of the proposed legislation.  These businesses need to be able to sell mixers, beer, wine glasses, corkscrews, and whatever else they want, but apparently not everyone realizes that this part of the equation is on the table.

We need a better job of communicating our objectives, for sure.  Frankly “wine-in-grocery-stores” is too simplistic of a moniker, but what are you gonna do now?

>

>Today Red White & Food announced the capability of sending letters directly to your state senator and representative through their website.

Always hoping to be an early adopter as I’m not really famous for anything, I did.  Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

Dear [person elected into office],

I wrote a letter several months ago urging your support for a bill which allows wine in grocery stores. I know that this is a complicated issue and will not be solved with one bill, but rather requires an overhaul of our state laws governing alcohol sales. I would like to again urge you to support these measures.

A 2009 poll from Middle Tennessee State University showed that, like me, nearly two-thirds of Tennessee voters support wine sales in retail food stores. In fact, more than 20,000 Tennesseans have become members of the Red White and Food campaign. How can the self interests of 550 liquor store owners outweigh overwhelming support from the public? While theirs has been a loud and emotional voice in recent years, we consumers increasingly feel the need to speak out against what we feel are unfair practices on their part regarding price and availability.

Why not wine in 2010? Voters know it’s going to be a difficult budget year. It’s also hard to tell us you turned away $16 million to the state and $11 million to local governments in recurring fees and taxes.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I sincerely hope you will give serious consideration to this legislation in 2010.

Sincerely,
[me]

It’s shorter than the last letter, which probably bodes well for me.

The next legislative study committee meeting is Tuesday at 1:30, y’all!

UPDATE!

Received the following email in response:

Thank you for your email concerning this issue. I support the legislation allowing the sale of wine in retail food stores and will vote in favor of this bill.

Sincerely,
Senator Diane Black

>

This morning there was a study committee meeting regarding wine sales in grocery stores in this state. We’ll see a lot of these in the coming year. I didn’t know about the meeting in enough time to plan my schedule around it, but I watched the live-tweet feed from Red, White & Food. I’d like to address a few things that were said. (Please note that the italicized texts are paraphrased in order to comply with Twitter’s 140-character limit. These are not necessarily direct quotes!)

1. Rep. Todd: Travel to other states, and don’t see much of a difference in price of wine.”

WRONG. Totally wrong. I used my phone to take pictures of 5-7 bottles of wine in Atlanta and San Antonio at places like World Market, Trader Joe’s, and Costco. The difference in price was significant. Here’s one of them:


This bottle was sold in Nashville for $19.99. It was $11.99 in Atlanta and $9.99 in Texas. Curry Todd must not drink much wine because otherwise, he’d realize how eyepopping the difference is.

2. Rep. Tindell: Lot of confusion about markup, markdown, gross profit, etc. Need to clarify. Not sure consumer is being gouged.”

See my comment above. The consumer is being gouged due to lack of competition. Tennessee liquor laws do not reflect a free market.

3. “Rep. Montgomery: Can’t understand how selling wine in a grocery won’t hit liquor stores’ bottom line. Balance with consumers”

So how does it seem to magically work in all the other states? Allow the liquor stores to sell wine, beer, glasses, whatever. They’ll also still have their high quality, specialty wines that connoisseurs will prefer.

4. “Sen. Faulk: Public safety important. If we have more outlets, how do we ensure not more drunk drivers on road. Studies?”

There are ZERO studies correlating wine in grocery stores to underage consumption. None. I assume that’s the point here, and that we aren’t talking about individuals of the age of majority who can rightfully go to any liquor store and purchase all the liquor he or she chooses. 2 + 2 does not equal Jell-O. (Thanks, Chris Rock.)

5. “Up now: Chip Christianson, representing TN Wine & Spirits Retail Association…Chip: Liquor store owners have driven from across the state to be here today.”

Sure, because they are free to take off work.

6. “Chip: Wine comes in pints–can fit in pocket and walk out”

Um, I don’t know what kinda wine they sell down at J. Barleycorn’s, but I assume he’s talking about this. Those bottles hold 187 ML. That’s nowhere near a pint. But also my friend @Bebopalicious makes a good point: let’s count the number of items in a grocery store that someone could fit in their pocket and walk out with. (Like a can of beer!) That’s just faulty logic all the way around.

7. “Chip: Can’t trust grocery store clerks to sell wine.”

OK, I have a couple of thoughts on this. What do we mean by “trust?” We can’t trust a clerk to give us recommendations on what goes best with salmon or we can’t trust him/her to properly assess the identification of the prospective purchaser and assure said purchaser is over 21? Given the carding laws in this state and how police in every jurisdiction routinely conduct stings to see who’s carding and who’s not, it’s not my experience that it would even be an issue. Furthermore, if I owned a grocery store and heard someone say that I can’t trust my employees to follow the law, I’d be pretty pissed. So J. Barleycorn’s employees are SOOOOOOO superior to my (hypothetical) employees on this count? Based on what?

8. “Chip: RWF campaign not based on consumer support”

Chip clearly doesn’t read the paper. The numbers have been prominently published (see also here and here) that prove him dead wrong. RWF was borne out of consumer support—it gives us, the little ole consumer, a voice against the Big Bad Liquor Lobby, who wish to keep us under its boot.

9. “Sen. Faulk: I get calls from liquor store owners that they would like to sell other products. I’d like to poll the owners.”

They should absolutely be able to sell other products, especially beer.

10. “Chip: It’s an emotional thing with us. Owners come up to me and say they put everything into this biz and don’t want to change.”

Perhaps the only thing Chip said all morning that is 100% true and honest. I have no doubt that liquor store owners don’t want change because they invested all their money in their business and are afraid that if you upset the balance, they’ll be out in the street. I have no doubt that is their fear. But as my very wise friend @daveqr astutely observed, this amounts to emotional blackmail. Fear should not impede progress. As I mentioned once before, these are the same arguments we heard from bar and restaurant owners when they were faced with having to comply with a proposed law that outlawed smoking. Two years down the road, YOU tell ME if the sky actually fell? Nobody “just stayed home” as they resolutely threatened; jobs weren’t lost and places didn’t close down. As things change, you adapt your way of doing business. The Chip Christiansons of the world have escaped that adaptation for a long, long time. It’s only natural that they’d fight it now.

But we will win.

>. . . let’s talk about my obsession with Petite Petit. You know how you usually tire of the same thing after drinking it regularly for, oh, eight months? I haven’t. I still buy a minimum of two bottles at a time of this Lodi offering and it’s ALWAYS good.

Grace’s blogged about it too.

>Tomorrow is Red White and Food Facebook Day, an event to draw attention to issue of wine sales in grocery stores.

I know you’ll be shocked to hear that I have strong feelings about this. (Rolling eyes.)

I’m far from the only one. An increasingly loud and insistent contingent has been organizing in various corners of the state and it’s only a matter of time before the liquor lobby is defeated. Make no mistake: this is not about underage drinking, the fact that this is the “Bible belt” (a term pretty much no one my age or younger even acknowledges anymore), or unfair competition. This is about money. For many years now, liquor store owners have mounted a well-funded campaign to shrilly proclaim that the existing laws protect the public. In truth all these Prohibition-era laws protect are their own interests.

Katie Allison Granju reminds us that capitalism involves consumers driving the free market, not special-interest groups (and certainly not legislation).

Today there was also an editorial in the News-Sentinel supporting the measure much for the same reason. Furthermore,

 

[L]egislators who proclaim the merits of free trade need to confront the fact that they are supporting very protectionist legislation in the status quo. What is best for Tennessee’s consumers should determine the outcome of this issue.

The basis for my position is the same as everyone else’s: convenience (primarily), more choices, better prices–the same reasons I also support being able to ship wine to Tennessee from out of state. (See Tennessee Wine Lovers for that subject.)

Am I the only one experiencing deja vu with the opposition’s arguments? Who remembers all “the sky is falling” scenarios thrown out two years ago when the smoking ban was being discussed? “Our patrons will take their business elsewhere!” “I’ll have to close my restaurant!” “The state will lose X number of jobs!” I said it then and I’ll say it now: look no further than states which have already enacted this legislation to find that none of these doomsday predictions played out.

A number of other states have allowed grocery store wine sales and liquor and fine wine shops are still able to exist alongside them. The fact is that if I want a really good wine, I’m still going to go to Green Hills Wine Shoppe or Midtown (or Grace’s Plaza). It’s the same with other wine aficiondos. If it doesn’t matter, you’ll pick up Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s. If it does matter, you’ll go to the effort to get what you want.

I’ve also heard some racket about how consumers will lose out on the “expert recommendations” available only in liquor stores. Please note my use of quotation marks. Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll select what I want WITHOUT the boys at Bluegrass Wines & Spirits trying to hit on me while recommending (unbidden, I might add) some crap like Kendall Jackson. Spare me. On the other hand, if I want ideas, you can bet the farm that I’m going to go find the older man at Midtown or ANY of Green Hills’ staff.

/soapbox

You can also refer to the Red White and Food website for a more thorough discussion and the RW&F blog for updates.

>One of the newish, hip restaurants in town, Flyte, is doing a weekly event for wine lovers. Flyte Club is “part wine tasting, part wine class, and part happy hour.” The course started last week and runs until the end of August. Melissa and I went together last week and last night I went by myself; I’d already made friends with a couple of girls and I knew they’d be there again. It’s a really fun concept–they have distributors come and do short lectures about various aspects of the wine and then we taste four selections the distributors have chosen to illustrate the points. It’s super-laid-back and the format makes it easily accessible to everyone. No wine-snobbery–in fact, that trait is occasionally made fun of a little.

Last night the theme was acidity and I took a ton of notes. Not only did I learn a lot more than the first week (which was also very fun), we got a bonus tasting of a sparkling wine I’d never even heard of. I ran across a couple of websites that discuss a lot of the concepts we’ll go over here and here.

The class doesn’t claim to turn anyone into an expert. They don’t spend a ton of time on the really intricate nuances that you could probably get into–the purpose of the class is to give you a little bit of insight into the basics, enough vocabulary to articulate what you like to a retailer or at a restaurant, and most importantly to have fun with it. I think it’s a great idea and definitely intend to go to as many as I can.

>Some friends of mine, Johnny and Nancy Cosgrove, help operate Shade Grove, an up-and-coming winery that focuses on mead. I only got to go to one Meadfest–in 2004–and I’m sorry that I probably won’t get to go to another one. But they made it to the KNS today; good for them!

My favorite mead isn’t sold in stores yet but hopefully they’ll start bottling it soon.

Pick up some Shady Grove if you’re able.

>You really need to hear the inflection of those words in order to understand.

Or you could just read about the King of Crunk developing his own wine label and you’ll get it.