Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Time for a Wine Toast

As the Crain's Insider reports this morning (subscription), the rapidly enlarging budget shortfall could possibly enhance the effort to allow supermarkets to sell wine: "The need for more revenue bolsters the case for allowing supermarkets and other beer sellers to sell wine. Liquor stores, which enjoy a monopoly on wine sales, sometimes argue that smaller businesses won’t be able to get loans to pay the proposed fee for a wine-selling license, and that the state won’t reap the $100 million it forecasts. But the budget deal needs to be balanced only on paper, and the wine plan will facilitate that. With more sales outlets, wine sales would increase, benefiting growers."

Still, the inside plying of the special interests has made this more difficult than it should be; it seems that there are those in the assembly in particular, who care more for the 2500 liquor stores than they do for city supermarkets and the state's consumers-something that we emphasized to WCBS2 last night: "It would be good for supermarkets, particularly in New York city, because we have been losing supermarkets, 300 in the last five years," said Richard Lipsky of Gristedes. And supermarket operators say increased competition would save consumers some $80 million."

But the Channel 2 story fell short of balance-giving greater time for the liquor store owner to state erroneous information without rebuttal concerning job loss: "I just want to point out to you if this bill passes, to my right is a Food Emporium, to my left is another small kosher market, both of whom would be eager to start selling wines," Wartels said. Wartels also said it could put many of the state's more than 2,700 liquor stores out of business. It's not just liquor store profits that are at issue. Wartels' store employs 11 people and the owner told CBS 2 HD if the bill passes, some of these jobs could be at risk."

Fascinating tale, but what's missing here is the fact that the situation that owner Martells fears, is enacted without harm in all of the 35 states that allow wine to be sold in grocery stores-and frequently side by side in the same shopping centers. And the job issue is simply a canard; since if business did shift in an unlikely zero-sum game, good-mostly union-jobs would be created at the supermarkets.

But what about the danger of increased underage drinking? Another canard-check out today's Dining and Wine section of the NY Times: "As for the argument that wine in supermarkets will facilitate underage drinking, it doesn’t seem to be true in the states that permit supermarket sales. “What do kids drink?” asked Rick Garza, the deputy director of the Liquor Control Board in Washington State, which has permitted supermarkets to sell wine since 1969. “In Washington they drink primarily beer and spirits, not wine. People in the prevention community will tell you that very seldom do we have youth-access issues around wine.”

But the opponents, undeterred, keep pouring out the disinformation-wrapping it, like two day old fish, around the small store protection facade: "We don’t see any great public clamoring for this,” said Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Last Store on Main Street, the evocatively named coalition opposing the proposal. “This is an idea wholly generated by the big stores — solely a money grab.”

Of course, this assertion is undermined by the reality of the NYC retail market: "It would be like a dream come true,” said David Grotenstein, the general manager for Union Market, which has two high-end stores in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “It’s like the lost cross-merchandising element of retail — we seem so backward and primitive here in New York.” Hardly big box, is he?

But there is legitimate concern that the governor's proposal needs to be bolstered-with liquor stores being allowed to enter into the 21st century-an idea that has good support in the legislature with Senator Espada's bill to permit the liquor stores to expand. As the Times points out: "Nobody supporting the bill would begrudge some concessions to wine and liquor stores, which right now are not permitted to sell cheeses, bread and other foods that would naturally pair with wine. They can’t even sell beer, which is sold in groceries, delis and convenience stores. If groceries are permitted to sell wine, perhaps wine shops ought to be able to sell cheese and beer."

All the liquor lobby offers, however, is intransigence: "Mr. McKeon of Last Store on Main Street disparages such concessions. He asserts that the proposal will not generate nearly the revenue that the governor projects and predicts that 1,000 of the state’s 2,700 wine and liquor stores will have to close...It’s absolutely a joke that we’re going to compete with Whole Foods and Wal-Mart,” he said. “The mom-and-pop stores, they don’t need to change the law.”

No, the joke lies with McKeon's deceptive trade practices-and with those in the legislature who want to stand for square-against New York's consumers-for an archaic monopoly. The budget is in free fall, consumers are parched, and it's time to change this obsolete law.