Tennesseans will soon be able to buy wine at the grocery store

March 4, 2014

Oenophiles in Tennessee will soon be able to find their favorite varietals in neighborhood grocery stores after lawmakers approved a bill Monday to lift restrictions on wine sales in food stores.

The proposal, which passed the Senate on Monday after passing the House earlier this year, marks one of the last steps in a nearly decade-long fight between grocery stores and liquor stores backed by alcohol distributors. If Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signs the proposed legislation, voters in cities and counties that have liquor stores or bars will have to pass individual referendums to legalize wine sales in grocery stores.

David Smith, a spokesman in Haslam’s office, said the governor “will review the legislation in its final form before taking action on it, but I anticipate he’ll sign it.”

Supporters hope to begin collecting signatures to put the first referendums on the ballot by this year. But even if they pass, grocery stores won’t be able to sell wine until the middle of 2016 at the earliest. Grocery stores located within 500 feet of a liquor store won’t be able to sell wine until July 1, 2017, the Tennessean reported, unless the liquor store owner gives the grocery chain permission to begin selling earlier.

Some in the liquor industry say the bill would hurt Tennessee’s growing whiskey industry. Distillers are only allowed to sell their goods at liquor stores, which cannot be open on Sundays.

“We believe that if voters can decide wine in grocery stores by local option, they ought to have the chance to decide on seven day sales for package stores, too,” the Distilled Spirits Council said in a statement earlier this year. Adding Sunday sales, the council estimated, would increase tax revenue by $3.3 million to $4.6 million annually.

The U.S. wine market has boomed in recent years, capturing market share that once belonged to beer makers. About half the $59 billion Americans spent on alcohol in 2011 was spent on beer, while 17 percent went to wine sales, the Distilled Spirits Council reported in 2012. Total wine sales have risen sharply in the last decade, from about 617 million gallons in 2002 to 856 million gallons in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the Wine Institute.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.
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