Monday, November 27, 2006

A spirited special interest

There's an old debate starting up again here in Minnesota: should grocery stores be allowed to sell wine?

You'd think it would be a no-brainer. Why not? 33 other states allow it. It would be more convenient for shoppers, and the competition would help keep prices down. Is there any good reason not to do it?

Let's see if you find these arguments persuasive.

1. Cities really like the revenue they get from their municipal liquor stores;

2. It will cut into liquor store profits;

3. By making wine easier to buy, it will worsen the social problems linked to alcohol;

4. Grocers will promote low-priced wines, hurting the market for fine wines.

There's more at the liquor association's web site on the issue.

Persuaded? I'm not. My answers:

1. Too bad. You'll still get revenue; you just won't be able to overcharge for wine anymore.

2. Too bad. Welcome to capitalism. And liquor stores haven't been driven out of business in the 33 states that currently allow it.

3. An interesting argument for a liquor purveyor to make. Beyond that, we're talking about wine. Most minors don't go out and knock back a few bottles of merlot when they drink. Grocery stores sell cigarettes, another controlled substance, and they already sell 3.2 beer. There's no reason to think they can't handle the comparable responsibility of selling wine.

4. Huh? So what?

That about exhausts the public arguments against letting grocery stores sell wine.

So why has it been such a battle to make it happen? It's a classic case of a protected industry not wanting to give up its protected status. For legislators, it's a classic case of serving a special interest instead of constituents.

I used to live in Florida. There the issue wasn't wine; it was beer. Florida law -- a law pushed by large domestic brewers like Anheuser Busch -- required that all beer be sold in specific size bottles: either 8, 12, 24 or 32 ounces. That was fine for domestic brewers, but forced craft brewers and most imports to either produce a bottle specifically for the Florida market or simply not sell beer in the state.

Defenders of the law made arguments as specious as the ones above, claiming a rash of different bottle sizes would confuse consumers, bankrupt beer distributors and raise beer prices.

The arguments didn't stand up to scrutiny. In 2001, Florida eliminated the container law.

Florida, by the way, is one of the 33 states that lets you buy wine in grocery stores. If Florida can do it, surely a state as progressive as Minnesota can. Especially because polls show Minnesotans favor the idea by a 2-1 margin.

It's not the most burning issue in the world, but it's an easy one. Call your legislator or visit the grocery association's web site.

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