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All eyes on wine measure

Madison Mathews • Mar 9, 2013 at 9:10 PM

As legislation to allow wine in grocery stores moves forward, opponents and proponents alike are keeping watchful eyes on the bill as it passes through the legislature.

House Speaker Beth Harwell broke a tie vote Wednesday to advance the bill to the full House Local Government Committee.

The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. John Lundberg of Bristol, would allow cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. The companion bill recently cleared its first Senate committee by a single vote.

Current state law prohibits supermarkets from selling any alcohol stronger than beer, while package stores are only allowed to sell wine, liquor and lottery tickets.

One Stop Wine & Liquors owner Phil Scharfstein said he was disappointed with the bill’s progression this past week.

“I’m disappointed in the vote. With Harwell coming in and breaking that tie, there’s a lot of pressure from the top, obviously, trying to push this bill through those subcommittees,” he said.

Like many liquor store owners across the state, Scharfstein has been a staunch opponent to the bill, and he believes the measure would greatly impact the Johnson City liquor store market if passed.

“If we vote on it in the referendum to allow it to be voted in the municipality, then you’re going to open it up to at least seven stores just right here in this quadrant,” Scharfstein said from his South Roan Street office. “Take my intersection and multiply that throughout Johnson City and throughout the other cities and towns in Tennessee and you’ve got 5,000 to 6,000 new outlets with wine exposure.”

At One Stop, Scharfstein said sales would diminish if grocery stores and other markets were able to sell wine, which would mean he would have to let some staff go.

“I do expect sales to diminish. With diminished sales, the only thing I can do is cut loose employees. The majority of my staff has been here for over six years. They are trained to sell these products. Most of them have families,” he said.

Some legislators have said now is the time for liquor store and supermarket owners to compromise on bill, but Scharfstein said he does not see how compromise is possible when there are so many rules and regulations associated with the sale of alcohol.

“At this moment, compromise is very difficult the way I see it. It all goes back to these,” he said, holding up his book of rules and regulations. “How do you not just take these and throw them in the trash if that’s what it’s about?”

With the push coming from the GOP supermajority on support of the bill, Scharfstein said he’s worried about the measure’s progress as it continues to move through its hurdles.

“You’ve got (Lt. Gov. Ron) Ramsey and Lundberg and Harwell that are really pushing hard, I think, on a lot of individuals, a lot of representatives, a lot of senators that probably in their heart would vote against this, but with the pressure from above they’re not allowed to vote with their heart. They’re having to vote the party’s thoughts,” he said.

Food City President and CEO Steve Smith said the bill still has a long to way to go, but he’s hopeful it will pass so it will benefit customers in Tennessee.

“Would it be a profit center for us? Certainly if we sold wine, we’d make a profit from it, but as much as anything, we in our business gotta listen to customers about what they want in our stores, provided it’s legal and ethical and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

A number of Food City’s customers, particularly those live in Bristol and Kingsport, travel across the border to Virginia to do their grocery shopping because they know they can pick up a bottle of wine at one location, according to Smith.

Smith acknowledged the fact that liquor stores would lose some business, but he said they will adapt just as liquor stores, grocery stores and other retailers have in places like Virginia.

“Nobody protected the supermarket industry from Walmart or from drugstores selling food or Costco or Sam’s selling food, so the free enterprise system is a pretty good system to be able to get customers the best prices, the best variety and the most convenience at the end of the day,” he said.

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