Wine in Grocery Stores Could Come Earlier Than 2016

Back in November, voters across the state passed waves of local referendums loosening government restrictions that’d been bottling up the sale of wine in Tennessee for decades.

The ballot measures likely would’ve passed years ago had the Legislature not for the better part of the past 10 years dragged its feet on the question of giving the people of Tennessee more local control to mold their own community alcohol regulations.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, is looking to make up for some lost time. The second-term state legislator has introduced a bill to hurry along the process. Under legislation passed last year by the General Assembly, local supermarkets and other grocery-item sellers would have to wait until 2016 to begin selling wine. Mitchell wants to revise the law to allow them to start stocking wine this summer instead.

Mitchell told the Tennessean many legislators who weren’t happy with the 2016 effective date didn’t press the issue last session because they didn’t want to kill the bill. “I think the people of Tennessee spoke loud and clear: There’s no sense in us having to wait another year,” said Mitchell, a Metro Nashville Council member since 2007.

In 2014, the General Assembly passed legislation to allow the sale of wine in grocery and convenience stores, as well as the sale of other goods — including beer, food, lottery tickets and tobacco products — at liquor stores.  Part of the hard-won compromise between the major stakeholders allowed spirits retailers to begin selling their new products in July 2014, while food retailers would have to wait until at least July 2016 to begin selling wine. Grocery stores within 500 feet of a liquor store would have to wait until 2017, unless they had the nearby liquor retailer’s permission.

Under Mitchell’s proposal, food retailers within 500 feet of a liquor store would have to wait until 2016 to begin sales.

Shortly after the legislation’s passage in March, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey hinted the issue would probably come back up in the next year, as consumers may not want to wait two years to purchase wine more conveniently. “When we come back in January, that may be revisited. … That’s the one thing that I think, politically, we’ll hear about from people,” Ramsey said at the time.

Other changes to the law could include getting rid of the 20 percent markup and minimum square footage requirements

The 109th Tennessee General Assembly will convene on Jan. 13. However, the first business to be taken up by the GOP supermajority legislative body will likely be Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” proposal. Haslam has called an “extraordinary session” of the Legislature — which begins Feb. 2 — to discuss the proposal.

The Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association’s president, Rob Ikard has said his group is “comfortable” with the current arrangement and won’t be pressing the issue this year, though some of his members would probably like to sell wine sooner.