Update: Wine in grocery stores bill passes House

Nathan Baker • Feb 20, 2014 at 10:10 PM

After years of debate and false starts in the state capitol, it looks as if Tennessee’s grocery stores will soon be allowed to sell wine.

The attention-grabbing wine in grocery stores bill was approved 71-15 on the House floor and will likely head to the governor’s desk after reconciliation with the bill passed by the Senate last month.

The measures approved by the legislative bodies set up a referendum process in cities and counties that currently allow either retail package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales that will let residents decide if supermarkets, convenience stores and other defined retail food stores can begin selling wine in 2016.

The bill, sponsored by Bristol Rep. John Lundberg, saw a speedy approval this year compared to its sudden and unexpected halt last year by Jonesborough legislator Matthew Hill in the Local Government Committee he chairs.

Hill, who voted yes on the measure Thursday, championed the referendum process, which he said would give the people the final say.

If the voice of the people could grant the stores the ability to sell wine, so too could it be used to take that ability away if voters saw fit, Hill said.

One of the votes opposing the expanded wine sales came from Elizabethton Rep. Kent Williams, who, like in the debate in the House Finance Committee, called the bill flawed.

When the number of licenses regulated by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission suddenly jumps from 600 to 6,000, Williams said the agency will be ill-equipped to properly enforce the laws it’s tasked with upholding.

The bill, if approved could mean extra business for the Tri-Cities’ alcohol distributors, who currently can only sell beer, but would be allowed to branch out to wine by a provision amending current law allowing wholesalers to be based in cities with populations greater than 100,000 to move into counties with populations above 120,000.

But the bill could mean confrontation in a Johnson City shopping center, where the Earth Fare supermarket sits adjacent to One Stop Wines & Spirits.

According to the bill, a grocery store within 500 feet of an existing liquor store would have to first get approval from the liquor store to be granted the newly created wine license.

If the liquor store refuses, neither the grocery store nor the liquor store would be allowed to sell the expanded products allowed in the bill until 2017.

Earlier this month, One Stop owner Phil Scharfstein said he was still trying to determine how that provision would apply to the situation in the local shopping center.

To keep them from direct competition and promote a healthy business stock, many of the leases signed by the center’s occupants forbid them from selling similar items, Scharfstein said.

To be allowed to expand their offerings, new leases would need to be drafted and signed by both businesses and the center’s owner, Mitch Cox Companies.

He said the new allowances in the proposed law and the lease process could be used as tools to foster cooperation between the businesses.

Reported earlier:

Tennessee lawmakers passed a controversial bill that will allow grocery stores, big box retailers and convenience stores to stock and sell wine, provided that voters approve a referendum on the issue.

The vote came after more than two hours of discussion and questions to Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), who sponsored House Bill 610. A similar bill passed in the Senate earlier this year.

If voters approve the wine sales in places other than liquor stores, the earliest consumers could make purchases is July 2016.

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