What Do You Have To Do To Get a Bottle of Wine Around Here?

Why you still can't buy wine with your groceries in New York

Likewise, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes lent his name to the group. Citing the problem of underage drinking, Hynes wrote on March 19, "I am unalterably opposed to this legislation." But Hynes, his spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, says, was not aware that the liquor store lobby backed LEADD.

"He wasn't aware of the strong lobbying effort," Schmetterer adds. "His opposition was based on concern over easier access to alcohol. We do a lot here in Brooklyn around drunk driving issues."

If this were a drunk driving issue, however, wouldn't MADD be all over it?

On 14th Street, Trader Joe's wines are kept in a separate storefront, for no good reason at all.
Sam Lewis
On 14th Street, Trader Joe's wines are kept in a separate storefront, for no good reason at all.

In fact, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has never weighed in on whether wine should be sold in supermarkets. That's because, according to MADD spokeswoman Misty Moyse, the group doesn't believe that controlling where alcohol is sold is a core priority in combating drunk driving.

"While we feel and understand that economic times are tough, we would want to see increased anti–drunk driving efforts, regardless of where wine, beer, and spirits are sold," she says. "We're going to continue to advocate for those things we know will stop drunk driving."

Moyse says the group has long wanted New York State to require ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers as a term of probation, and has advocated for more sobriety checks. "These are the kinds of things that save lives and prevent injuries," she says.

If it wasn't too surprising that the liquor store lobby had used pros in what it was calling a "grassroots" effort, and had even persuaded some law enforcement groups to go along, what did seem astounding was that some wineries had also been persuaded to join the effort.

If there was any group that would benefit from opening grocery stores to wine, it was the wine makers themselves.

The Last Store on Main Street boasted that some 80 wineries in the state opposed the sale of wine in supermarkets. Notably, they claimed, most of Long Island's wineries opposed the idea.

Last Store spokeswoman Leggitt pointed out that New York's grocery stores wouldn't be stocking local wine anyway: "Coming from the small independent-business side, wineries want to keep us out of it for the sake of their fellow members in the wine industry," she says.

Some wineries did back the bill, however, and say they paid a price for it—in the form of intimidation from the liquor store lobby. (Leggitt says the Last Store group had no involvement in, and did not condone, such intimidation.)

On February 4, Scott Osborn, president of Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan, wrote to Governor Paterson and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, complaining that because he testified in favor of the wine bill, he had been targeted by "a coordinated campaign of intimidation and retaliation" by the liquor lobby.

Osborn says he had been uneasy about testifying because "the liquor store lobby had made it explicitly clear that my support of this change would result in my being added to the liquor stores' 'enemies' list, and that my product would be removed from the shelves."

Osborn claims he received three phone calls the day after he testified from liquor store owners vowing to pull his wines off their shelves. He says he got about 30 e-mails, most of which threatened to pull his wines from their shelves.

Osborn demanded an investigation into his complaint. "There should be no doubt that this is a coordinated effort on behalf of the liquor lobby to damage a well-respected New York State business and put a damper on free speech," Osborn wrote.

In an interview with the Voice, Osborn declined to identify the people who threatened him, saying all of that information had been given to Cuomo's office. "I had some conversations with people associated with liquor stores who said I should be very careful," he says.

Indeed, Osborn did see a decline in his business in the first month after he testified. "I think many of [the wineries] were intimidated into it, and some of them just don't see the big picture that grocery stores would actually carry their wines, and, as far as I know, most of them never talked to a grocery store," he says. "For me, it's a no-brainer. Instead of 2,700 outlets, you get 19,000 outlets."

John Martini, co-owner of the Anthony Road Wine Co., also in Penn Yan, says he received similar treatment. "We had some of it direct from stores and some secondhand," he says. "And we have seen our wines no longer being carried, or placed on the bottom shelf or in the back."

Martini estimates that this backlash from liquor stores has cut sales for the year by about 460 cases through April, and cost him about $60,000 in business: "That's a big chunk for us," he says. "We got threats, and the threats were carried out."

Like Osborn, Martini also complained to the Attorney General's office. He finds it odd that so many wineries would oppose a bill that would expand their market: "A rising tide floats all boats," he says. "If wine is more easily available, consumers will increase consumption. People lose sight of the fact that grape growers are also mom-and-pop businesses."

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