“The Mondavi Chardonnay?  Yes, its on Aisle 312 next to the Weber Twin-Propane Tank, Stainless Steel, Mega Wild-Game Grill.”

All across New York State, legislators and the wineries and wine shop owners they represent are in a heated debate.  Should New York grocery stores be allowed to sell wine or should it remain the sole domain of specialty wine shops?

It’s frankly a bit of a morass where no one quite knows what effects will follow should the gates fly open and the Costcos and the Gristedes be free to set the juice loose next to the WonderBread and Cap’n Crunch.

The essential debate:

–Will selling wines in grocery stores bring New York state wines to a broader audience or will they be lost in the flood of mass-produced wines guaranteed to make a buck for the stores?

–Will the state really make money on this, or will it simply be a one-time shot in the arm that later leaves the state scrounging for more without a mere monetary crack rock in sight to satiate its coffers?

–And what about the local wineshop? Throughout the last decade, we all stood by in awe as the juggernaut bohemoth of Wal Mart popped up in every town.  We watched as the small “mom and pop” stores shriveled on the vine and turned to dust before our very eyes.

Just think about the discount Yellow Tail would grant if you bought on such a scale that a fleet of Kangaroo-laden trucks dropped off 100 palates of the swill in one go?  And us as consumers, we’re culpable too, because where you gonna go for your fix?  The Shiraz at CostCo for $4.45 or the Shiraz at John’s Vino Hut for $7.oo?

We’ve seen it with Starbuck’s.  We’ve seen it with Barnes & Noble too.  Many of our favorite coffee shops and bookstores disappeared overnight, unable to compete with the price and convenience the big box stores provided. The fresh blood of the little guys hadn’t even dried on their corporate frocks before opening yet another outlet across the street.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, because something interesting has happened (at least in NYC).  Artisan beer shops, like Bierkraft in Brooklyn,  are still gaining popularity while micro-brewed beer is sold in grocery stores (including the massive Whole Foods).  Focusing on rare finds, quality products, hospitality and providing a level of goods the big boys would never find profitable, they’ve found footing in the business landscape.

Could this happen to our wine shops?  Sure they may have to mark down their bottles of Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc, but maybe by finally focusing on the wines of the North Fork that lie at our doorstep, they’ll bring in more consumers who appreciate that level of specialization.

I recently read a great article written by Amy Zavatto in the latest issue of Edible Manhattan which served to only harden my confusion as many players in the wine industry took heated positions on both sides of the debate.  But ultimately, it’s anyone’s guess what the passing of the law could mean…

Where NY State Wines go to die?


19 Responses to “Wine in NY Grocery Stores: Convenient or Catastrophic?”

  1. Peter says:

    I think it’s a horrible idea. Of course some of the giants would love it for the access it grants to Joe Schmoe. But I’ll argue, even though I hate Yellowtail and Kendall Jackson, that these brands offer a certain amount of cash flow and traffic to their neighborhood stores that would cease to exist. And unless you own the building your store is in, many people would/could lose it all. I’d much rather see a corner, bullet-proof, liquor store make a modest living and an opportunity to evolve with the neighborhood than to see a grocery store chain swallow them whole. All of this and we haven’t even started the conversation on Spirits which would certainly find a way into the supermarket once the foot was left open by the wine industry. Tell big box to stick to T.P. and soda.

  2. Peter, thanks for dropping a line and I agree with you on a lot of those points. I gotta be honest, though, I feel like its inevitable and only a matter of time…when there is a dollar to be made, its hard to stand in the way of the capitalistic machine. What can be done?

  3. Brendan Eckner says:

    Selling wine in grocery stores would be a phenomenal idea. It is astonishing that we are one of just 15 states in the country that does not do so; not to mention the only major wine and grape producing state. California and Washington state have six times as many outlets to sell wine per capita as New York. North Carolina, the fastest growing wine producing state in the country, allows wine in grocery stores and supports roughly 13,000 liquor stores compared to New York’s meager and ever shrinking 2,400. If selling wine in grocery stores would put liquor stores out of business then how do you explain the fact that states with wine in grocery stores support more liquor stores?

  4. Sarah Paul says:

    As a citizen and a consumer of wine I do support the sale of wine in grocery stores. I don’t feel that I am being selfish to want the convenience of buying wine where I buy my groceries like residence of so many other states can. I also would think that New York State as a whole would benefit greatly from the increased revenue that the sale of wine in grocery stores would bring. To me it seems as if the amount of money this legislation would bring would by far out weigh the loss of some liquor stores.

  5. Matt says:

    I’m always for more freedom and in this case it seems to me that more freedom equals letting grocery stores (or any other stores for that matter) sell wine if they want to. What makes you think that they will only sell the likes of yellow tail and company? Grocery stores here in Milwaukee sell a number of great wines produced in local state wineries. It also doesn’t seem like liquor stores have much trouble staying in business despite the fact that grocery stores and pharmacies can sell beer wine and liquor.

  6. Brendan, thanks for posting those statistics. There’s obviously a lot of fear out there and looking at these other states gives a good sense of how the economy will react to such a change. The numbers certainly made me raise an eyebrow…

    Matt and Sarah, I hear you. In my opinion (having began my foray into the business by working in a NYC wine shop), I feel the current system is ineffective in terms of bringing NY wines the attention they deserve in the marketplace. Our “New York wines” section was pathetic. So in that regard, I want change.

    My feeling is the law will (and possibly should) pass eventually. This will send ripples through the market (which is also a good thing), many stores will close, others will shift focus and hopefully the consumer and the local wineries will benefit.

    The capitalism cynic in me sees rows and rows of mass-produced brands eventually filling the aisles because of the bottom line and lack of willingness to educate and expand the Average Joe’s palate. Maybe this will become the job of the specialty wine shop? But making a buck on that alone is a huge challenge.

  7. Peter says:

    I’m not sure where you get your numbers but here are a few. California is larger than New York. Alone they have 15 times as many wineries; bonded or virtual, and just about 75% more liquor store/wine shops. North Carolina has less than half of the amount of wineries as New York and barely 25% of the liquor store/wine shops that NY has. NC has less of these store. If there are 15000 places to buy alcohol that means over 93% are grocery stores. To go further I’d have to hypothesize/opinionated that the level of selection in a Southern grocery store chain would come nowhere near the depth of the bottom row in the store I started out in. As for Freedom that the other guy spoke of I say keep your Ayn Randian/ Freidmanist free market crap out of my diversity. We all know that pandora’s box leads to Walmart business models, homogeny and the skeletal remains of what used to be community. In a world of planned obsolescence and big box, discount stores, what chance does variety, quality over quantity and art have? Let the mom and pops keep their Absolutes and Kendall Jackson’s if only to propogate the family run, small production cultures that still exist.

  8. Jason Clarke says:

    I hate to disagree, but Brendan is misrepresenting those statistics. For one thing, North Carolina is a “control state” which means that all hard liquor is sold from government owned and operated liquor “dispensaries”–not a good comparison to the private liquor stores that are owned and operated by private businesspeople in New York (and Colorado). For another, the numbers he cites from all three of those states count all grocery stores which sell wine as “wine outlets”–the real question though, is how many of those are small businesses run by sole proprietors? Those are not “liquor stores” as those of us in the 15 states who don’t allow wine sales in grocery stores think of them.

    This is an important source of middle-class jobs. Owning and operating a liquor store is a reasonably profitable enterprise and those are good jobs, but 75% of most liquor stores’ profits come from wine (since hard liquor is sold on a tighter margin and beer is already sold in grocery stores).

    It’s not a question of freedom, it’s a question of saving small businesses. I’d rather preserve the livelihood of small business owners than fight for the “freedom” of Wal-Mart and other huge grocery chains to sell wine.

    One other note: In states where wine and beer are sold in liquor stores craft brews and small vineyard wines are much harder to find since grocery stores don’t generally carry them, which means that their sales are lower. It’s a bad idea on all levels.

  9. Out here in California wine in grocery stores have always been the norm. I do work for a smaller specialty wine distributor (Portugal/Spain/Argentina) and I’m all for good wine selections at the grocery store especially if you have a savvy, knowledgeable and passionate wine buyer. My only issue is most grocery stores especially chains seem to only buy from the biggest distributors, leaving many smaller companies out therefore giving you a watered down mass produced selection of “brands”. Though done right with thoughtfulness and caring a grocery store can have an excellent selection and great prices. From my experience here in CA I’ve found many mom n pop grocery stores carry much better wines because they tend to buy from smaller mom n pop importers/distributors. They also tend to pay the bills on time compared to straight wine and liquor shops, because they have so much more money coming in, which in today’s business environment is very important!

  10. Carol Strassburg says:

    This was an excellent article because the writer, David Flaherty, looked at several sides of the issue. Amy Zavatto quoted extensively only those opposed to allowing the sale of wine in food stores. Thank heaven her editor, Gabrielle Langholtz, brought other points to light in her “Grist for the Mill.”

    Consumers are smart and many will still prefer to go to an enterprising liquor store/wine shop to get service and favorite wines. If grocery stores take over Yellowtail the wine shop will have much needed shelf space for small, local wineries and boutique wineries from other areas making their store even more appealing to consumers who want something special. Several liquor stores are in favor of this legislation because they want to be able to sell more than just alcohol to their customers. And everyone who wants to buy brandy or Scotch will still need the liquor store since they will be the sole purveyors of spirits. New York wines are among the best in the world as shown by ratings in Wine Spectator and awards at international competitions. Wine offered in food stores will increase consumers’ awareness of this beverage which will, in turn, help the New York wine industry flourish providing hundreds if not thousands of jobs in rural New York at wineries and allied businesses. Allowing wineries the opportunity to sell their farm product to more than just the 2,400 liquor stores in NY opens the market and if New York wineries aren’t afraid of the competition who are others to say they should be. Don’t forget, some winery owners who spoke in favor of having the opportunity to sell wine in food stores, last year, had their accounts cancelled by some liquor stores in retaliation so most wineries are fearful of saying anything now. No smart business person really wants limited markets.

    Isn’t it time all New Yorkers called a halt to the mega, powerful, and rich liquor and other lobby associations whose monopoly we all support through increased across the board taxes? If you want to let an opened market for wine sales provide additional revenue to state and local governments and private industries please contact your State legislators and ask them to vote “Yes” to allow the sale of wine in food stores.

  11. Jason Clarke says:

    The sad thing here is that is exactly the other way around. It is the “mega, powerful, and rich” grocery chain lobby that is pushing this (and has already pushed it through in 35 other states). It’s the small business owners who are fighting it. Of course big wineries support it, because it has been shown to increase wine sales as much as 10% in other states that have made the change. But it also, as Peter points out pretty effectively, kills small liquor stores and smaller wineries who don’t get shelf space in big box superstores, and aren’t being given the freedom to sell as wide a range of food items as grocery stores. There will still be some small boutiques who offer a wider selection, but they will become the exception, not the rule, and the giants will have yet another advantage over the little guys. Ask your representative to vote “No.”

  12. Tina says:

    We are a 6th generation family farm specializing in wine grapes. We have always had a waiting list of wineries wanting to purchase our premium grapes. For over 3 years now we have been unable to sell our crop. We are anticipating putting 80 tons of grapes on the ground this year.
    Family farms keep the land green. Would you rather save the “mom and pop” liquor store and put a 6th generation farm out of business? Do you want condos in place of the vineyards?
    The NYS Wine Grapes Growers have been trying for over 30 years to pass legislation for wine in food stores, so they can continue to farm and do what they love. We are the only major grape growing region in the US to not allow it.
    Wine is an agricultural product. If you are against wine in food stores you are against farms. The time is NOW. Please call your legislatures and tell them YES!

  13. Beren says:

    I live in White Plains (downstate) and we have a lot of liquor stores and wine outlets and unfortunately, I have a very hard time finding New York State wines. The quality of NYS wines has been gaining significant recognition from numerous online and print outlets–particularly recent articles in Wine Spectator highlighting several Finger Lakes wineries and grape growers–and among consumers who travel to our wine regions to discover great wines and enjoy the amenities of the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, many liquor stores and outlets still do not carry NYS wines. I would like to see grocery stores selling wine.
    I moved here from Chicago and I can say first hand that when I went grocery shopping it was really nice to be able to grab a bottle of wine for dinner from the grocery store. I liked the convenience. With that said, I also appreciated the knowledgeable staff at two of the local liquor stores in our neighborhood. They were friendly and attentive and actually offered tastings of some of the wines they were showcasing. If I wanted to find something new or wanted some advice about a particular region, I could go to the wine shop and get that service and make some pretty spectacular selections. I couldn’t do that at the grocery store. So, will wine stores or liquor stores be “killed” by grocery stores? Experience tells us no, they won’t. They will innovate and offer better services and selections to consumers.
    The wine and grape industry in NYS not only supports farmers and wineries but is also a major driver of regional economies–tourism is a great example of the positive impact of a healthy wine industry. While NYS levies some of the highest taxes in the Union on businesses and individuals, maintaining our prohibition era liquor laws limiting wineries from expanding to the potentially large new markets in grocery stores is just another obstacle that wineries have to navigate and limits their ability to invest in new technology, grow their staff and expand their operations.
    The argument that wine in grocery stores “kills small liquor stores and smaller wineries who don’t get shelf space in big box superstores, and aren’t being given the freedom to sell as wide a range of food items as grocery stores” is the same old and tired “David and Goliath” kind of story that distorts the facts and leaves out many of the other important issues this debate encompasses.
    The fact that some business will rise and some will fall is a reality in any industry. While no one wishes failure on anyone, the answer to ensuring a healthy climate that spurs economic growth and does not stymie it; is not in stagnant government policy that restricts businesses from expanding their markets; particularly New York State wineries ability to sell their products in grocery stores.
    The wine and grape industry is a growing industry that supports thousands of families throughout New York. Continuing to restrict wine sales to liquor stores is destructive to an important and growing component of New York State’s economy and we have a great opportunity to change that.
    So, call you legislators and senators and tell them to vote YES on wine in grocery stores!

  14. Erica says:

    I live in the Finger Lakes area… I pride myself in buying local products. Unfortunately, every time I go into a local liquor store, my options to purchase Finger Lakes or even Long Island wines are EXTREMELY limited! I feel like opening up the market to sell wine in food stores would help the NY wine industry grow thus allowing me a larger selection of NY State wine in more locations- Food Store and Liquor Store alike.

    All of this talk of losing thousands of jobs can be counteracted by the creation of jobs NY State will experience if the farm wineries in our state are allowed to thrive.

    As a resident of NYS and a tax payer in NYS I welcome the opportunity to raise revenues in this time of economic hardship without raising my own taxes.

    I recently came across a posting from “The Last Store on Mainstreet” who represent the liquor stores’ monopoly- the accusations that they are making are unwarranted, unprofessional, and sound a little ridiculous. If they are really trying to make a valid point why do they feel the need to cut so low below the belt? It seems as though they are directing all of their anger towards NYS wineries when in reality, NYS wineries account for such a small fraction of their business.

  15. Peter says:

    My initial reactions are toward opening the door to wine being in grocery stores. There seem to be a few conversations going on in this debate. If the goal is to raise revenue for a failed state budget then I’m out. No agricultural endeavor should be predicated on revenue but instead be rooted on more noble grounds. I feel for the grape grower who may have to drop large amounts of fruit but the reality is that if the demand actually existed, grapes would be sold. The problem isn’t that the market is limited. The problem is that the Finger Lakes and Long Island are way behind the international level of wines of comparable price. Instead of injecting the region with superficial stimulus ie. Supermarket placements (which eventually would open up all wine thus again limiting expodue) we should be promoting Cornell and the intellectual centers of the region. The problem with NY Stare wines is the hoax. The Bully Hills and the myriad indigenous and mostly inferior grapes of the region. If we support the growth of historical perspective, terroir and the noble grapes that apply, in time quality levels will increase and in turn our generations of grape growers will have a legitimate shot at securing their own future. If we succumb to the pressures of quick fixes and simple marketing schemes we only prolong the misery that is overall quality and reduce the role of grapegrower to the likes of subsidized corn farmers. Always preach quality as foundation and growth will be legitimized in the right way. Open the doors to Supermarket placements and cross your fingers that it doesn’t turn into a free for all up and down the wine and spirits spectrum. In the end the Finger Lakes, of which I’m from (Cayuga County), will be no more than a cute label owned by a mega distibutor like Constellation.

  16. Cindi says:

    I fully support the sale of wine in grocery stores AND the sale of products other than alcohol in the liquor stores. In so many of the arguments against wine in grocery stores it seems the owners of liquor stores forget that they can benefit as well with new legislature. On a personal note, I love the idea of having the convenience of being able to pick up a quick bottle of wine when doing my food shopping, and anything to help grow NY State’s wine industry is important to me. From a business perspective, I don’t buy the idea that “grocery stores carrying wine will put small liquor stores out of business”. A savvy business owner, and any liquor store worth it’s alcohol, stocks a wide variety of wines from many origins that even the customer who would pick up a “convenience” bottle of wine in the grocery store would patronize when they are shopping for something more special. For example, my friends and I do a winter supper club once a month featuring cuisine from a specific country. I would never even dream of shopping in the grocery store for wine to go with those dinners – I would go to the liquor store. Customers shopping for liquor would love being able to buy their mixers and other items such as gourmet foods all in one place. There’s business enough for all – our NYS liquor laws are outdated and need to be changed. Please contact your elected officials and tell them to vote YES.

  17. Dan Mitchell says:

    Lets look at this objectively from a statistical point of view. There are 2500 liquor stores in NYS, and each owner can only have one license (in theory) so there are 2500 liquor store owners in NY. Out of 19.5 million people that makes them one millionth of one percent of the population of the state. A vast majority of these liquor stores are staffed with owners and part time employees, so leaving things under the current system really only benefits the owners. Liquor stores large enough to have full time staffs will not likely be affected. Leave as is, benefit 2500 people.

    The number of winery owners in the state is smaller, admittedly a fairly exclusive group. Yet they manage to operate a business that not only allows NY to rank third in the nation in wine production, but an industry that has 6 Billion dollars in economic impact across the state (from employees, to land taxes, to tourism, etc). If the wineries are allowed to grow this number will grow as well, plus the benefit the state will get from licensing fees (one time shot or not). If you include the speculation that increased competition in the marketplace will bring lower product prices, everyone will benefit.

    Leave as is- Benefit 2500 people
    Change- Benefit 19.5 million

  18. Lisa says:

    I live in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country and believe that having New York wines available at grocery stores will greatly benefit our wine industry and state economy!!

  19. JIm Anderson says:

    I live in Upstate NY and work part-time at a local Wine shop..We carry a large selection of NY state wines and I spend most of my week dusting them off! ! ! Most people just don’t like them ! ! A few from the finger lakes that won some attention will sell for awhile then drop off…If NYS Wineries think that the big chains will carry wine that doesnt fly out the door ,then I think they are drinking a lot of their product! ! ! Yellow tail comes from a lot further off then NYS……………………..

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