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

According to a Last Store press release, however, Long Island wineries were unanimous in their opposition to the wine bill: "L.I. Wineries Speak in One Voice: No Wine in Grocery Stores."

But Long Island wineries, too, were targeted, says Joseph Gergela, head of the Farm Bureau, an organization that advocates for farmers: "A number of wineries were called and asked not only to stay neutral, but also to oppose it," he says. "Certainly, intimidation played a major role. I got numerous phone calls from wineries about it."

For their part, the supermarkets were banking on the lure of increased tax money to the state. In a time of budget catastrophe, they figured that no legislator in his or her right mind would turn away from a projected $160 million in state revenues. And, they argued, it was a good thing for the consumer to get his food and wine in the same place.

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.

The supermarkets say they never tried to appear as anything other than what they were. "We are transparently a business organization that is making an economic argument on the merits," says David Vermillion, the spokesman for the supermarkets lobby, who works for Edelman Communications, a big PR firm. "We're not trying to be anything else. We didn't, for example, go out and find data on how many drunk drivers bought their alcohol at a liquor store."

New York supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis downplayed the notion that the wine bill would be a sizable boon to his business: "For me, as a supermarket owner, it's one more product on my shelves," he tells the Voice. "We weren't going to carry the fancy wines. Just table wines and New York State wines. We thought it would add probably $2 million a year. We do close to $300 million, so it wasn't a significant number. It's more of a convenience to our customers."

Catsimatidis thought some of the arguments made by the opponents of the bill were ridiculous—especially the notion that it would foster more teenage alcoholism and more drunk driving. "Teens are drinking beer, if anything," he says. "They aren't stopping in for a bottle of wine. The drunk driving claim is a joke."

He points out that 35 states already allow wine sale in supermarkets. "The fact is that there are fewer and fewer liquor stores each year," he says. "So, you're going to make it an inconvenience to the customer? The supermarket industry is willing to compromise. . . . But the liquor lobby has a chokehold on the people of the legislature, costing jobs and taxpayers."

The dispute climaxed in budget talks between Assembly Speaker Silver and Governor Paterson.

Paterson went into the negotiations with a sheaf of facts to back up his support of the bill. Albany insiders say, however, that as the talks wound to a close, Silver simply refused to discuss the measure.

The opponents of the bill took their victory lap. "At the end of the day, the strength of our grassroots campaign overcame the multimillion-dollar PR lobbying blitz of grocery stores," declared McKeon, a spokesman for the Last Store group.

"We applaud Speaker Silver, Majority Leader Smith, and their members for putting public safety first by rejecting this dangerous plan," said Warnock, the spokesman for LEADD.

But in Albany, no idea is truly dead. Last month, Assemblyman Joe Morelle of Monroe County proposed a new "compromise" measure, which, he said, would allow liquor stores to sell a wider range of items, expand to up to five locations, and form collectives from which to bargain with suppliers.

"I see this as a win-win for everyone," Morelle said at the time.

The liquor stores said they would oppose any measure that puts wine in grocery stores.

Then, Albany fell into chaos from the power struggle over control of the Senate. Everything stopped. When they got started again, the Morelle bill was still on the sidelines.

In the weeks after Silver killed the proposal, the Last Store group weighed in on a similar dispute in Tennessee, praising the legislature in that state for rejecting a "job-killing plan" put forward by "greedy grocers" that "would cost jobs, harm teens."

Stefan Kalogridis of the New York State Liquor Store Association once again used his favorite biblical analogy: "Cynics in the media tell us all the time that the only thing that matters in politics is money, but these legislatures just proved that the power of the people matters the most. This was David versus Goliath, and David won."

Sure—if by "David," you mean lobbyists posing as grassroots organizers.

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

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