NASHVILLE — A proposal to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores scored its first legislative victory on Tuesday after years of frustration.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted 5-4 to advance the bill that would allow cities and counties to hold referendums next year to decide whether to expand wine sales beyond the state's nearly 600 licensed liquor stores.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro and the bill's main sponsor, stressed that the wine votes would only be allowed in communities that have previously passed referendums to allow sales of liquor by the drink and retail package stores.
"Both of which wouldn't be in your city or county if it did not get there by referendum," he said. "All we're doing with this bill is asking the same opportunity: Let your people vote."
The measure would have to be approved by the Senate Finance Committee before heading for a full floor vote. The House began hearings on the measure on Tuesday, but a first vote had not yet been scheduled.
The proposal has the support of two of the heaviest hitters in the Legislature in Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville.
Statewide public opinion polls have shown strong support for supermarket wine sales, but opponents have raised fears about wider availability of stronger alcohol and the effect the change would have on existing liquor stores.
Under current law, supermarkets can't sell any alcoholic drinks stronger than beer, while package stores can't sell anything other than wine, liquor and lottery tickets.
Republican Sen. Jack Johnson tried to add a provision to the bill that would allow liquor stores to sell cigarettes, beer, snacks and other items in communities that approve supermarket wine sales.
"If we're going to provide some convenience for folks in a grocery store who want to get a bottle of wine with their pot roast, I think you ought to be able to get a corkscrew with your bottle of wine," he said.
Ketron noted that several businesses around the state have been allowed to "skirt the law" by building both a liquor store and convenience store under the same roof, divided only by a wall or glass divider.
"Why not tear down the wall, as Ronald Reagan said," Ketron said. "Allow them to sell whatever they need to sell. That's part of what this country is founded on."
"I don't want to have to drive to Kroger if I can buy my mixers in the liquor store," he said. "I want to buy some wines and do tastings, I don't have a problem with that."
That proposed expansion failed by one vote, leading supporters of the overall proposal to fear that the measure would fail by a similar margin. But Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis ended up swinging his vote in support of advancing the bill.
Republican Sens. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma and Mark Green of Clarksville joined Ketron, Johnson and Tate in voting for the bill. Voting against the measure were Chairman Ken Yager, R-Harriman; Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon; and Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville.
The vote was followed by a mass exodus from the committee room, with supporters showing their excitement and opponents retreating to discuss their next steps.
"It's disappointing, very disappointing," said Chip Christianson, owner of J. Barleycorn's package store in Nashville and former president of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association. "I don't know the rationale, but we live to fight another day."