The Grape Debate

It's enough to drive you to drink

Last year the state's grocers and liquor retailers spent upward of $500,000 fighting over a bill to allow the sale of wine in supermarkets. Now they're set to go at it again.

A little background: Wine sales are allowed in grocery stores in 33 states. Another state, New York, has pending legislation similar to Minnesota's. (Bizarrely, while you can't buy wine in a New York supermarket you can buy beer--and you can't buy beer in a liquor store. Then again, in Minnesota you can't buy food in a liquor store.)

Last year, led by the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and veteran lobbyists Wy Spano and Sarah Janecek, the liquor merchants employed a slick strategy to combat the bill: They emphasized how despicable their products are. Police chiefs offered testimonials like "Alcohol is the single greatest threat to our community," and predicted that if the bill passed, "intoxicated people would go into grocery stores looking for liquor while families are shopping." The crux of the attack was that the law would make booze more available to underage drinkers--a pool of chardonnay consumers naive grocers presumably aren't sophisticated enough to weed out.

The Minnesota Grocers Association came out swinging with the grassroots "Wine With Dinner" campaign touting wine in grocery stores as a free-enterprise issue and a convenience Minnesotans favor. They notched a victory in a house commerce subcommittee, but the opposition scored big with its wine-is-a-lethal-weapon tactic, and it was all downhill from there.

This time around, the "Wine With Dinner" advocates say they're better prepared to counter the liquor lobby's attacks, with assurances about employee training and grocery-store security. Still, dragging Minnesota out of the Prohibition era is going to be a hard sell. Rep. Gregory Davids, chairman of the Commerce, Jobs, and Economic Development Committee in the house, says at the outset the debate is "too close to call." Davids made headlines last year when he accused the liquor lobby of dirty pool, refusing to get specific but calling its tactics "the most pathetic, dishonest, unethical, underhanded display of lobbying I have ever seen."

 

Though the combatants on both sides would have you think otherwise, to them the wine issue is all about money. For liquor merchants, wine is an especially lucrative commodity, boasting profit margins that typically exceed those of spirits and beer. Store owners are aghast at the prospect of making room at the trough and want to perpetuate the protectionist perks of their trade. Grocers, meanwhile, want wine for precisely the same reason liquor stores don't want to give it up.

Consumers, however, ought to view the proposed legislation in an entirely different light. Sure, convenience is a factor, as is free enterprise. But most important is common sense: It's time to acknowledge wine's appropriate place in our culture. Wine is food. This concept is far from radical. Though modern science is only now catching up to the ballyhooed health benefits, entire societies have managed to treat wine as a foodstuff for centuries.

Sam Haislet co-owns the St. Paul wine emporium Solo Vino, and unlike his compatriots in the retail booze biz, he favors the proposed law. Why? "I think that wine belongs in grocery stores," Haislet says. "It's a civilized thing to do. In order to have wine be a part of the culture, it needs to be enjoyed at mealtimes, and with others."

Citing research he and his partners undertook before opening their shop last year, Haislet notes that "Minnesota is 21st in the nation in wine consumption. If every [household] had a bottle of wine with dinner at night, it would be better for everybody."

When he says "everybody," Haislet includes merchants. Of course, he acknowledges, liquor store owners who don't work hard to sell wine would probably suffer if mass-market wines became more widely available to the mass market. I talked to a liquor retailer in Florida, where wine has been on grocers' shelves for eons. Chip Cassidy has spent 30 years in the wine business, the past 15 as the wine buyer for one of the nation's biggest independent chains, Crown Liquors. For years, Cassidy says, the Florida grocery behemoth Publix didn't pay much attention to wine. "Then they suddenly realized wine was the most profitable thing they sold. They got competitive--they put wine all over the place, hired people who knew something about wine," he recounts.

Just as suddenly, Cassidy says, Publix slacked off. "They saw the stuff doesn't move that fast," he theorizes.

Like Haislet, Cassidy believes service is the key to success: "You'd better have somebody in there that knows something about wine. You can dress things up with beautiful selections, but if you don't give the customer what he wants, he's going to go somewhere else."

If you've purchased wine in the Twin Cities, you're well aware that the customer-service picture Cassidy and Haislet paint is nearly nonexistent. Instead, for ten months out of the year we have an overpriced product, with extended semi-annual "sales" creating the only break.

It wouldn't hurt to see these folks work a little harder for their money.

 

Headfirst appears every other week. E-mail the author at tfinkel@citypages.com.

 
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