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Spirited debate

Opinions vary on allowing sale of wine in grocery stores

March 15, 2009
By RICHARD NILSEN/The Leader-Herald

One of the ways Gov. David Paterson hopes to diminish the expected $15.4 billion budget deficit is by legalizing wine sales in grocery and convenience stores.

His office published estimates that the state can raise $105 million by charging grocery stores various fees for the right to sell wine.

But liquor store owners see the proposal as a threat to their livelihood, as well as an opening for the sale of alcohol to minors.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Jeff Chamberlaine, co-owner of Spirits of the Adirondacks of Johnstown, places bottles of wine on display at the store Monday.

Jeff Chamberlaine of Spirits of the Adirondacks in Johnstown said he doesn't see any upside to the proposal.

"As it stands, liquor stores control the sale of wine so it isn't sold to minors," Chamberlain said. "We have no teens in the store. It is much more likely in grocery stores."

Wayne Brooks of M&S Liquor in Gloversville said he thinks legalization of wine sales in grocery stores is "ridiculous." He said grocery store employees won't have the expertise to advise customers properly on wines or make sure underage shoppers aren't sold alcoholic beverages by mistake.

"This is my livelihood," Brooks said. "I invested $2,000 in an electronic scanning device to make sure no fake IDs are used."

Food Industry Alliance of New York State spokesman James Rogers took issue with the contention that underage sales of alcohol to minors would more likely take place in grocery stores.

"The wine sales would be offered to stores that already have off-premises beer licenses," he said. "They are already dealing with carding for beer sales."

Mona Golub, manager of public relations and consumer services for Price Chopper, agreed with Rogers. She said the electronic carding, transaction documentation and video coverage of every alcohol purchase taking place in the chain makes underage sales much less likely than at an independent liquor store.

"We think it is about time [for wine to be available in grocery stores]," Golub said. "Polls show 70 percent of consumers would like to see wine sold in grocery stores."

Rogers said the governor's proposal is by no means pioneering.

Neighboring states Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey are among the 35 states that already have legalized wine sales in grocery stores.

Rogers said Paterson's proposal would charge each franchise applying for a wine license a one-time fee of about 0.5 percent of total annual sales.

"That's worthwhile for most grocery and convenience stores," Rogers said. "But some won't participate."

Rogers said state Division of the Budget estimates predict two-thirds of grocery and convenience stores will carry wine if allowed to do so.

"It's still a bit up in the air as to the outcome," Rogers said. "New York is the third leading producer of wine. It was second until Washington state opened grocery stores to wine sales. That showed what a boost it can give."

Rogers said independent liquor store owners needn't feel the sale of wine in grocery stores will hurt them. He said adults who haven't felt comfortable buying wine at a liquor store would likely become acquainted with wine in grocery stores, and go on to refine their tastes in liquor stores. Therefore, liquor stores would likely benefit in the long run, he said.

Still, owners like Chamberlaine and Brooks aren't convinced.

Brooks' store has a poster advising patrons to let the governor know they are against the measure before April 1, the day the state is supposed to adopt its budget.

Brooks said he has 300 signatures from his store alone on a petition against the measure.

"If it passes, it will put smaller stores out of business," Brooks said.

Chamberlaine referred to a Web site that has been set up to express concerns at The site predicts chaos if the proposal succeeds.

"If Gov. Paterson's proposal is passed into law, there will be devastating effects for small businesses, independent wine stores and New York's economy in general. One thousand stores will fail, with a loss of over 4,000 jobs across the state - while large retailers will have no need to hire additional workers to cover increased sales," the site proclaims.

Rogers says just the opposite is likely.

"In Florida, grocery stores selling wine are in the same strip malls with liquor stores, and both thrive," he said. "New York ranks [46th] in the nation per capita for liquor stores. We are under-represented."

Rogers contends the opening of wine sales to grocery and convenience stores would help revenue and the wine industry across the state.

Matthew Maguire, a spokesman for the Wine and Grocery Stores Coalition, agreed. He said New York has only about 2,500 wine-selling outlets.

"That both inconveniences consumers and hurts New York's wine industry," Maguire said.

He said increasing the number of outlets to some 18,000 would foster increased competition and save New York's consumers some $80 million as a result. A study by the American Economics Group concluded that wine sales in grocery stores might trim the liquor stores' "monopoly profits," but the bottom line would be a net increase in employment - estimated at some 2,000 net new jobs, Maguire said.

Brooks said the idea the public will be better served is false.

"Grocery stores will never carry the variety of wines I have in my store," he said. "The public will have fewer choices, not more."

Brooks said the argument that New York wines would have better local distribution is also wrong.

"I have 110 varieties of New York wine here," he said. "Grocery stores will carry the big box and discount wines."

Public relations spokesman Mike Norton of Hannaford Food Stores said the chain hasn't taken a public position on the proposal, partly because they aren't sure if the proposal will succeed.

"We're waiting to see how it all comes out," Norton said. "If enacted, the proposal would be a great convenience to our customers."



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