Where’s the Wine? It’s Finally Here.
BY JUSTIN OWEN
If you have ventured into a Kroger or Publix recently, you’ve probably noticed something never before seen in Tennessee: aisles of freshly stocked wine. Beginning tomorrow, Tennesseans will finally be able to buy wine in grocery stores. It’s been a long time coming. Proponents and consumers fought for nearly a decade to pass legislation authorizing wine in grocery stores, a laws oft-referred to as WIGS.
But just because we are now free to pick up a bottle of Malbec with our chicken and fresh veggies, the fight should not be over. The legislation to pave the way for wine in grocery stores, and subsequent changes thereto, were rife with flaws and protectionist provisions. Lawmakers should reconsider the following elements of the law in order to truly embrace a free market in wine sales.
1) Mandatory Markup on Wine Prices
The WIGS law mandates that grocery stores jack up prices on wine by at least 20%. These minimum markup or “cost of doing business” laws are an affront to free enterprise, and do nothing more than protect competitors at the expense of consumers. As I’ve written in the past, these laws hit consumers in the pocketbook every time they purchase milk, cigarettes, and now wine. Find a nice bottle of Chardonnay for $15? If it weren’t for the strong-arm of government, you’d only pay $12 for that bottle. Minimum markup laws are effectively a hidden tax in certain products. These laws should be erased from the books, and legislators should start with the one on wine.
2) Cap on Liquor Store Ownership
One of the most insidious laws to pass the modern Tennessee General Assembly is the change to WIGS earlier this year. Due to a minor flaw in the original WIGS bill, there was concern that grocery stores would be unable to obtain their licenses in time to begin selling wine on July 1 as intended. Some lawmakers beholden to the liquor industry saw this as a convenient time to insert a little cronyism into state law. The liquor lobby feared big box retailers would come in and (gasp!) compete with them, so what should have been a simple fix turned into a protectionist law.
One of the good reforms in the original WIGS bill was to eliminate the arbitrary cap on the number of liquor stores someone could own. With a sleight of hand, lawmakers re-instituted that cap earlier this year. Now, it is illegal to own more than two liquor stores in the state. For the sake of property rights and free enterprise, this disgraceful about-face should be corrected when legislators return in January.
3) Prohibition on Wine Tastings
Wine consumers like to explore different tastes and test how wines pair with food. Wine tastings are a great way to do this. Yet the WIGS law prohibits grocery stores from offering wine tastings inside their stores. Conceivably, this is to prevent grocery stores from turning into full-fledged bars, but the threat of a wine tasting turning into a drunken throw down is quite laughable. Grocery stores should be free to conduct tastings if they so choose, and state lawmakers shouldn’t stand in their way.
Tennesseans should celebrate the ability to buy wine in their local grocery store. It’s good for convenience, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for taxpayers. But the WIGS law is not without its flaws. Hopefully, the General Assembly will address the weaknesses in this law sooner rather than later.