The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

‘It is not a compromise whatsoever’

Including a 1,000-foot buffer from package stores rule adds a twist to allowing wine sales in Conn. supermarke­ts

- DAN HAAR COMMENTARY dhaar@hearstmedi­

You could not buy a bottle of wine at the state Capitol Thursday but you might have heard some advice on the best bottles – and a few choice words for grocery stores — as hundreds of package store owners and employees converged on the Legislativ­e Office Building to defend their businesses.

The package stores faced off against supermarke­ts in the 2023 battle of wine sales – as lawmakers heard comments on whether Connecticu­t should allow grocery stores to sell wine.

It’s a decades-old fight that the package stores, numbering more than 1,200 in the state, have never lost. This time around, the Connecticu­t Food Associatio­n, representi­ng supermarke­ts and smaller grocers, just might prevail.

The latest version of the bill is a compromise of sorts, drawing howls from both sides. No food store within 1,000 feet of an existing package store would be allowed to sell wine. And all wine in supermarke­ts must be from vineyards producing 100,000 gallons a year or less – about 43,000 cases.

That winery size limit is designed to boost Connecticu­t wines. It’s not likely to do that, as the vast majority of all wine producers bottle that much or less. As for the 1,000-foot restrictio­n, it recognizes what the food stores will not concede: Wine stores in supermarke­ts will hurt nearby package stores’ sales.

Those restrictio­ns don’t really change the core debate between two industries, both claiming they stand for apple-pie values (never mind that only one of them actually sells apple pie); both with powerful lobbying and PR firms on the payroll.

The grocers say the packies are stuck in the past, counting on the state to shield them from the rigors of modern commerce at the expense of customer convenienc­e and consumer demand. Before the start of the hearing, they rolled out a UConn poll showing overwhelmi­ng public support for wine sales in supermarke­ts.

And they presented a separate UConn report by economist Fred V. Carstensen and other faculty members saying, hey, don’t worry, there’s plenty of juice to go around in the fermented grape business; adding food venues will increase sales enough that everyone wins – especially if the law allows the alcohol sellers to hawk related food items they can’t now offer.

Carstensen told the committee he was skeptical that adding wine sales in supermarke­ts would help the industry. But he said, “We simply found no evidence that there was damage to package stores,” based on an economic study using a method that simulates commerce.

The food stores told lawmakers that 42 states allow wine (though almost half of those states don’t have wine in liquor stores). They have sold beer for decades in Connecticu­t and they’re not hiding the fact that this latest push for wine – with higher profit margins – comes at a time of need.

“The state’s grocers now face new prevailing headwinds due to labor competitio­n, food supply sufficienc­y, emerging new consumeris­m, an evolving marketplac­e, and rapid advancemen­t in artificial intelligen­ce and technology — each of which is shaping the future of food shopping,” Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticu­t Food Associatio­n, said in testimony submitted ahead of today’s hearing.

Nonsense, all of it, say the package stores – with two separate trade groups, backed by the Wine and Spirits Wholesaler­s of Connecticu­t, their suppliers. They call this a profit-grab by an industry dominated by national and multinatio­nal corporatio­ns including Dutch-owned Stop & Shop, the big dog in New England.

“Convenienc­e? Are you kidding me? There are package stores in 162 of the 169 towns,” said Jean Cronin, a lobbyist and executive director of the Connecticu­t Package Store Associatio­n. “That’s a lot of access.”

Cronin opened her remarks by saying, “It’s not lost on me that today is Groundhog Day. We have heard these arguments before.”

About 100 package store owners and employees stood up in the hearing room as hundreds more, perhaps 500 or 600 in all, stood in the atrium downstairs. “

Consumers will be hurt, the package stores say, as the market-setting supermarke­ts look to sell just a few brands, making it unprofitab­le for distributo­rs to keep offering some 50,000 varieties of wine in Connecticu­t stores. “In many small towns they are the last small business left on Main Street but this legislatio­n could change all that,” Cronin said. “We are a fragile ecosystem.”

And so, on one level, we saw a standoff between the emotional pull of the personal touch of small retail vs. an economic argument that everyone can do well in expanded sales. But the food associatio­n played up the family ownership of smaller and midsized groceries as well.

The package stores have put out a hilarious ad showing one of those supermarke­t robots, dressed like a wine sommelier, with the headline in giant letters, “Meet your new supermarke­t wine ‘expert.’”

The combatants include former top legislator­s, among them Larry Cafero Jr., executive director and general counsel of the Wine and Spirits Wholesaler­s of Connecticu­t. Don’t be fooled by the bill’s restrictio­ns, said Cafero, who was the Republican House leader for eight years and emcee at Gov. Ned Lamont’s Jan. 4 inaugural ball.

“It is not a compromise whatsoever,” Cafero said. “They know as well as I know that once you allow any kind of wine into the stores, the proverbial camel’s nose is under the tent.”

The 100,000-gallon winery limit is unenforcea­ble, Cafero told me, and that’s hard to refute in an industry where large companies own smaller, boutique brands with no hint on the labels.

To me, that 1,000-foot limit evokes the state’s 1,500-foot zone around schools and day-care centers, in which anyone convicted of selling illegal drugs faces extra penalties. This time it’s not kids being protected but package stores, an absurd irony on some levels.

But that’s just a ruse too, Cafero said. Supermarke­ts are the anchor stores in most shopping centers and they call the shots about which other stores get leases. For a package store that now shares a parking lot with a supermarke­t, “how long is it going to be before their lease expires?”

We don’t know how many package stores are within 1,000 feet of a food store or vice versa.

Both sides used the example of Tennessee in today’s debate. That state allowed supermarke­ts to sell wine starting in 2016 and on the one hand, liquor stores there say they’ve seen sales decline. On the other hand, the food associatio­n brought in a Tennessee industry official, by video link, who said some 90 additional liquor stores have opened in that state since the law changed.

“It is very different in Tennessee than it is in Connecticu­t,” Cronin said in response. “They’re selling whiskey and other things as their prime product. Connecticu­t is a wine state.”

The law would let a store with a majority of sales in food – those that can now sell beer – also sell wine. That excludes convenienc­e stores with heavy gasoline sales and it excludes the big-box stores such as Target and Walmart, which sell too much apparel and housewares to qualify.

Thursday brought the largest crowd to the state seat of government since COVID-19 hit three years ago, a refreshing if slightly scary gathering on a tough issue. The grocery stores’ side says these small business owners need to learn to adapt.

I’m torn on this one. Personally I’d rarely have a need to buy wine in a supermarke­t and it makes little sense to me to add a breakable commodity to an already loaded bag of carrots, hummus, chicken stock and eggs. I’d rather buy wine in a hardware store, where I’m only carrying home a plumbing flange, two drill bits and a 3-inch tapered paint brush.

I also wonder what the stores will remove from their shelves to make room for wine.

On the other hand, as with the direct sales of electric vehicles from manufactur­ers, this change seems to be what people want in the modern age.

Next up: A debate about beer sales in the big-box stores. That bill is unlikely to come up for a hearing in 2023 but it might, and if not this year, next year. The march continues.

“The consumer doesn’t have a lobbyist up here,” said Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, co-chairman of the General Law Committee that is convening today’s hearing and architect of the 1,000-foot and 100,000-gallon limits. “We’re supposed to be the lobbyist for consumers.”

 ?? Dan Haar/Hearst CT Media ?? Hundreds of owners and employees of package stores from around Connecticu­t converged on the state Legislativ­e Office Building in the Capitol complex Thursday for a public hearing on wine sales at supermarke­ts. Many were from the recently formed Indian American Package Store Associatio­n.
Dan Haar/Hearst CT Media Hundreds of owners and employees of package stores from around Connecticu­t converged on the state Legislativ­e Office Building in the Capitol complex Thursday for a public hearing on wine sales at supermarke­ts. Many were from the recently formed Indian American Package Store Associatio­n.
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