Pinot, Pork Loin and Consumers: The Grocery Store and Wine Debate

grocerystoreSeventeen states ban the sale of wine in grocery stores. Seventeen.

The question this brings to mind is this: Is this policy of prohibiting consumers from purchasing a Pinot when they purchase their pork loin justifiable?

I’ve been pondering this as at least four states gear up to look at their wine-in-grocery store policy in 2013: Kansas, Kentucky, New York, and Tennessee.

What’s fascinating is that this debate never happens over the issue of “is the current policy justifiable”. Do have that discussion one would first need to go back some decades and determine the rationale for prohibiting wine sales alongside food in the first place. invariably, that exercise leads to the discovery that the original rationale is either hard to discover or the circumstance underlying the original rationale (usually market conditions and economic structures) are no longer in place.

No, today, the issue of wine in grocery stores is debated along two lines:

1. Allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores would be a huge convenience to consumers

2. Allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores would economically harm liquor stores where wine is currently only allowed to be sold

It’s notable that nobody disputes the former argument, made regulatory by the proponents of wine sales in grocery stores, including grocery stores and consumers. Nobody disputes it. A grocery store owner in Kansas who supports the idea of selling wine in his store puts it this way in a recent article on the subject:

“Very often people come in and ask, ‘Where’s the wine? I want that with my supper tonight.’ I have to inform them that we aren’t allowed to sell wine in the grocery store because it’s Kansas,” Hy-Vee Store Director Kevin Osterhage said.

I took considerable time recently to try to effectively argue the contrary, that consumers would not be benefited by being able to buy Pinot and Pork Loin in under the same roof. The only thing I could come up with is that it is much more likely for a consumer to get more personal and informed service in a store that is dedicated to selling wine than in a store dedicated to selling everything we put down our gullet. But this isn’t an issue of convenience. It’s an issue of communications. There simply is no way to counter the argument that consumers are better served via wine being sold in grocery stores.

This is why opponents of wine in grocery stores (most often liquor stores and wholesalers) prefer to argue the issue over the issue of the harm it would cause liquor store owners if consumers no longer were forced to enter a second store to get a bottle of wine with dinner. In a recent article about the effort to change the law in Tennessee, Josh Hammond, owner of Busters’ Liquors & Wines in Memphis and president of the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association, made the case like this:

“Wine and spirits retailers will have to lay employees off and many will have to close. Where will the jobs come from? Certainly not the grocers. They’re not adding square footage or shelf space. They won’t need to hire one extra person.”

Here is what’s unquestionable: If a state changes its law to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores, consumers not only support the law, but they also benefit from the law. On the other hand, it is unquestionable that some people currently buying wine in liquor stores will, under a new law, choose to take their wine business to grocery stores.

What’s a law-maker to do?

This is the crux of the issue for a lawmaker in Kansas, Tennessee, New York or Kentucky faced with a bill that opens wine sales in grocery stores. Support liquor stores or support consumers. There are ways for bills to be written that mitigate the harm that may come to liquor stores. For example, allow them to now sell a variety of goods they are not allowed to. Or, in some states the law says a liquor store owner may only own one store in the state. That too could be expanded to allow liquor store owners to expand their store holdings. Yet these two ways to mitigate potential harm to liquor store owners, despite giving cover to lawmakers voting with consumers, is almost always dismissed by liquor store owners as no real help.

What’s a law-maker in one of these states to do?

This is where the consumer must come in. A vocal, loud and ongoing call by consumers to allow wine in grocery stores is the key to passing wine in grocery store measures. The interests of the consumer and the desire of the consumer need to be harnessed and communicated in order for law makers forced to decided how to vote on a bill to be convinced that the overriding concern here, the most important concern, the concern higher on the pecking order is the consumer.

I can count the instances on one hand in which an organized consumer movement made the difference in the passage of pro-consumer legislation related to access to wine. Almost always, any pro-consumer measures that pass and help the wine consumer are done legal decision force the issue or because  a combination of media pressure and the potential that not passing pro-consumer laws would actually hurt some businesses.

The issue of direct shipping is most relevant here. In the wake of the 2005 Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision, states were told they either had to allow wineries everywhere ship to their citizens in-state, or allow no wineries anywhere (including in-state) ship to their citizens in-state. In most states, the local wineries already had the right to ship while out-of-state wineries had to right. In order to continue to keep out-of-state wineries from shipping in, lawmakers would have to take the privilege away from in-state wineries. That amounted to setting the boot down upon what were almost always a collection of family farmers and family run businesses. Lawmakers decided they were safer standing up for family farmers than for big wholesalers who wanted out-of-state wineries prevented from shipping. But it was not really a matter of what consumers wanted that led to opening up direct shipping for out-of-state wineries.

Maryland was a good example, on the other hand, of consumers getting the job done. it took more than three years for consumers, under the banner of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws, to get their message across and overcome opposition to allow direct shipping from wineries. But they did it with consumer pressure.

If wine lovers and consumers who like a glass of wine in Tennessee, Kansas, New York, and Kentucky want to see Pinot near their Pork Loin, they better speak up. They better speak up loudly. If they do, they’ll get what they want. If they don’t, lawmakers will see little reason to protect and stand up for the interests of the most important constituent: The Consumer.

22 Responses

  1. Douglas - January 4, 2013

    Spot on. Couldn’t agree more. As for the quote from Josh Hammond (grocers “won’t need to hire one extra person”), that is ridiculous. Grocer’s won’t have employees stocking, pricing & monitoring their in- house stores? Please.

  2. Tom Wark - January 4, 2013


    There always tends to be dire warnings and exaggerations surrounding this debate…well, for that matter, most debates in the wine world. I remember when the claim was that direct to consumer shipping would put wholesalers out of business in the U.S. Not so much.

  3. Holly Evans-White (@LeCellarCat) - January 4, 2013

    Thanks Tom on a timely, insightful article. Gotta admit to being a bit embarrassed whenever I remember that I am a citizen of the same country that still allows so many arcane laws for so many wrong-headed reasons. Energy, time and money spent on wrestling over wine control would well be better spent solving things like, um; gun control? These fellers need to have a glass a wine and get their heads screwed on straight.

  4. The Drunken Cyclist - January 4, 2013

    You hit it right on the head when you state that the wholesalers (for whatever reason) are against putting wine in grocery stores. You did not, however, take that a step further: the wholesalers collective lobby is much stronger than the…. Oh wait, there is no real lobby for the consumer.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - January 4, 2013

    It’s a fact in NY State that the majority of consumers polled want wine sold in grocery stores, as does the present governor (and past governors) yet, when the issue came up for the umpteenth time recently, the NY Assembly leader killed it–he said he didn’t see consumers calling for it.

    In NY State, this issue was first brought up in 1934, by Paul Garrett (the man who started Virginia Dare and who was once head of Fruit Industries). He brought it to the legislature right after Repeal, but the bootleggers-now-turned-legit had already made their play and payments.

  6. Hugh Sutherland - January 5, 2013

    This is only partly a good idea- the big problem lies in the fact that what will be avaialable in Grocery or chain stores is the cheapest plonk available- it is just a pure matter of economics that these stores will not stock upmarket and this will lead to what has already happened in all other industries- when mass production and the bottom line prevails it becomes more difficult to both make or sell quality- and In wine quality is important

    • Kurt Burris - January 7, 2013

      I agree Hugh. When I moved to California I was very excited to be able to buy wine in grocery stores, but it has been a classic case of be careful what you wish for. As long as all you want is mass produced, mass marketed plonk it’s great. But if you want something special, or just something like an affordable Vin de pay or Spanish wine you are out of luck. Yes, there are good wine shops, but the increased competition from the big retailers, makes it a lot harder for independent stores that support smaller wineries and distributors to survive. I actually enjoy shopping for wine more when I go back to Colorado to visit than I do here in Sacramento.

  7. Skeptical - January 5, 2013

    Although what is said here is probably true, what wasn’t said is even more important. The reason laws were set up this way in the first place was to avoid the inevitable progression of alcoholic beverages being used as ‘loss leaders’ and forcing low cost, widely available alcohol on a public that doesn’t need it and is rightly concerned about the public cost of such a situation.

    One need only look at the UK’s failed experiment with mass merchandising of alcoholic beverages to see what widely available, cheap alcoholic beverages has meant to people there. Binge drinking, public drunkenness and concomitant social costs have gotten so bad that now the UK is seeking to go back to restrictions.

    The fact is that only about 15% of the population in the US consumes about 90% of the beer, wine and liquor. Making these beverages cheaper and more convenient for this minority has severe social and economic costs for the other 85%.

    Oh, and one more thing. Studies have shown that wine, not beer or liquor is the beverage of choice for underage females. Greater access to wine puts this group at further risk.

    I know what I have said in my response will not be popular with your readers, but that does not make my statements false. Leave the current system alone. It works and limits the ‘bad’ parts of alcoholic distribution to the majority that choose not to drink but see the wisdom of allowing those that want to to do so with the least impact on the rest of society.

  8. Jill - January 5, 2013

    @Skeptical: Most grocery stores have pretty tough carding/id policies. Increasing access to underage drinkers does not really seem like the issue to contest.

    @Hugh: Certainly the grocery stores will sell more plonk. But, I see that as an area in which the wine shop will distinguish itself. Better wine, better information, better customer service, better experience. I prefer to purchase my wine in a shop – but there are certainly times when I would like to be able to just “grab a bottle”.

    As always, it is up to the consumer to choose the place in which to shop. Wine stores won’t go out of business because wine is available in grocery stores, they will only go out of business if customers choose not to shop in them; probably that will mean fewer dedicated shops.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - January 5, 2013

    Skeptical and Hugh: what Jill said.

  10. Brotherhood Shiraz – our quest for the ultimate Red Wine and beyond » Blog Archive » Pinot, Pork Loin and Consumers: The Grocery Store and Wine … - January 6, 2013

    […] Pinot, Pork Loin and Consumers: The Grocery Store and Wine Debate. Posted by Tom Wark on Jan 4, 2013. grocerystore Seventeen states ban the sale of wine ……/pinot-pork-loin-and-consumers-… […]

  11. JohnLopresti - January 6, 2013

    The optimal benefit to consumers can be seen in a local competitive marketplace with which I am acquainted. The supermarket also sells a selection of liquor. As a competition among local liquor stores who sell wine and the grocery that sells both wine and liquor, has morphed over the past 5-10 years, the grocer had an opportunity to scope the extent of wine products it would sell and the knowledge of its wine buyers. The grocer renovated and created substantial diversity in some of its wine offerings, while basing the selection on not very crafted wines.

    A nearby community has several variations on the competition, with one grocer opting to avoid selling liquor but stocking a few choice dessert wines to supplement the still tablewine selection. That grocer, situated near the winery neighborhoods, sells many novel labels of wine, intermixing imports with ultrapremium tablewine, so a spectrum of shoppers can find the porkloin complement at their individual, preferred pricepoint.

    Two of the five states mentioned in the post might take a long look at enabling grocery stores to sell wine. The two other states on the list probably have politics still to divisive in 2013-2014 to accomplish much in bringing wine to the grocery shelves.

  12. Dr. Zen - January 7, 2013

    In BC, Canada we have probably the worst regime in the world when it comes to wine. With the exception of a handful of grandfathered retail licences, all the wine is sold via government liquour stores and taxed at about 130%. Yes you heard me correctly. A $10 bottle of wine costs $23 here.

    I remember a trip with my brother to Seattle in the last century. On the way back home, we stopped at a Costco and were mesmerized by the wine selection. We found 1983 Dom Perignon stacked on pallets!

    On a lark we both bought the Dom along with 10lb legs of Prosciutto from Costco. Under the NAFTA treaty, pork and wine were exempt from duty on import back into Canada.

    I had a definite smile on my face when I honestly declared to the border guard that all I was bringing back was some pork and a bottle of wine 😉

    Cherish freedom. Demand more always.

  13. Holly Evans-White (@LeCellarCat) - January 7, 2013

    Dr. Zen, Jill – amen. I have been selling fine wine in California for over 20 years. The wine I blissfully, easily and expensively sell is not sold in Safeway.
    But I buy wine in Safeway and am glad to be able to. I buy bread there too. I also buy bread in bakeries. And wine in wine shops.
    I can be caught with a Carl’s Jr. burger while on the road to Oregon where I blissfully buy decent Pinot Noir in Safeway and Market of Choice. I also buy wine at wineries in Oregon. And wine shops. I also eat at Farmstead in St. Helena, Gott’s, and pick up lunch at Dean and DeLuca.
    I’m not rich (repeat; I sell wine for a living). I appreciate choice. Freedom. Diversity. The wine shops that remain in business in Napa Valley do so because they are good at what they do. (& a wine shop in Napa Valley is NOT an easy gig with all THAT competition) Enoteca in Calistoga comes to mind.
    My husband produces wine at a winery floor stacked everywhere from Costco to a corner market in San Francisco. It’s made in St. Helena. The winery is a huge employer and tax payer and philanthropic entity. Folks without cars can walk to their market, buy a bottle, consume it, no harm no foul. Alcoholics exist in countries where alcohol is illegal.

    The pinot/pork debate is one of control and who continues to benefit from controlling liquor. Look at state by state policies, as they exist currently, and over time. See who is pulling the strings and why. I’ve spent a career having to do this as a Californian shipping wine to varying states.

    Wine is legal. Wine is food. Wine goes with food. Safeway St. Helena’s wine aisles are right there with the bread and cheese sections. And rightly so.

    • Kurt Burris - January 7, 2013

      I too sell wine, unfortunately not easily or expensively. It is blissful on more days than not however. (As to eating at Carls Jr. that is another story.) In my market, Sacramento and Tahoe, there is a shortage of good bottle shops. I like the convenience of grocery store and Costco wine and liquor. I buy booze at Trader Joe’s. In the chain grocery stores wine is a commodity and the selection is given as much emphasis as milk or potatoes. I wish there was more variety without having to go to one of the half dozen good wine retailers in town, and none of them are in walking distance. But, I do stock up on domestic sparklers from Safeway when they mark them down in December, so I’m a bit of a hypocrite I guess. Cheers!

      • Holly Evans-White (@LeCellarCat) - January 7, 2013

        Hey Kurt,
        Safeway has the bubble deals to be sure! Yesterday I bought an interesting bottle of sparkling Chenin Blanc for $30 from Pope Valley winery (only place it is sold) – afterwards I went to Safeway and bought some Roederer and J and Gloria Ferrar all for under $20. Hypocrite? How? I HATE that I give in to Carl’s Jr. (health-wise) but glad it’s there when it’s all I have time/energy for. Democracy means voting with our wallets. If we don’t want Carl’s Jrs we don’t outlaw them, we quit eating at them. But if others want to eat there – it’s their choice. I love that marijuana will soon be legal eventually everywhere. I don’t smoke dope. I won’t start when it’s legal. (Been there done that.) But all controlling it did was create far worse problems. The idea of not having wine (or bread) in grocery stores is silly. Totally get why some want to keep it out of stores and totally get how they spin it to appear to be about something other than commerce. Totally get why consumers fall for the trick. Everybody needs to make a buck.

        • Kurt Burris - January 7, 2013

          I’m just whining about the lack of diversity in the chain environment. I really think they are missing the boat by not having more diverse offerings, at least in some stores. But the big distributors, with their armies of merchandisers don’t really want that. It does surprise me that with as horribly entrenched the three tier system is, that the Southerns of the world haven’t gotten wine and liquor into grocers everywhere to be able to carry wine. I would think a multi state chain buy would be their ultimate goal.

  14. Kurt Burris - January 7, 2013

    P.S. I don’t want to outlaw Carl’s JR. I just find their ads offensive. (And I try to eat at accounts I have a chance of selling wine to) But, I’m lucky (sort of) in that I have the fat reserves that I can skip a meal (or three).

    • Holly Evans-White (@LeCellarCat) - January 7, 2013

      I need to see me a Carl’s Jr. commercial! My DVR protects me from ads (blessedly). & being chubby has never stopped me from indulging in anything (wine especially – yeesh).

      Whoops. Sorry Tom, got off topic.

      In the end, glad I’m a Californian drowning in delicious, easily-accessible wines. Makes me feel a little teary, and would feel patriotic if ALL states behaved more patriotically when it comes to the vino!

      Cheers! Hey Kurt, Tweet me (we can wander off in wine land @LeCellarCat)

  15. Rory Banyan - January 9, 2013

    At least weed in Washington is legal-ish. Not that I smoke anymore. Of course wine should be available in grocery stores, supermarkets, what have you. Frankly, shocked to find out it isn’t! Guess we west coasters are spoiled. Sad some states are still so back-assward.

  16. Wholesale Merchandise Store Colorado - June 28, 2013

    I think this can be on the list of so much important info in my situation. And i’m satisfied looking through a person’s report. However should really paying attention on couple of frequent points, The site model is right, this articles or blog posts is definitely terrific : Deborah. Exceptional process, best wishes

  17. Pregnancy Miracle - May 19, 2014

    First off I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick
    question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.

    I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems
    like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Thank you!

Leave a Reply