EAST WINDSOR, Conn.—The front line of Connecticut’s latest alcohol policy debate is a strip mall just off the interstate here, where shoppers entering Geissler’s Supermarket and nearby Kaman’s Fine Wine and Liquors are greeted by signs urging them to take sides.
On one end of the fight, grocers such as Geissler’s have launched a campaign this year to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores, a practice that is already legal in most states. They argue putting wine alongside the beer already on their shelves will make things more convenient for customers who can grab a bottle along with their groceries. It will also boost sales in a low-margin business.
Their rival package stores, such as Kaman’s, say they will lose revenue and, in some instances, be forced to cut staff or close down. In Connecticut, so-called package stores are the only places that can sell wine and liquor. The stores and their advocates have framed the issue as big chains plowing under smaller businesses that are still often family run.
The fight over wine sales engulfed this New England state, where hundreds of people packed a hearing this month at the state Capitol. It also highlights a push by several states to expand access to booze by changing alcohol regulations—some of which date to the end of Prohibition—that were suspended in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mississippi lawmakers passed a bill this year that would allow alcohol sales on Sunday, and North Carolina legislators introduced a measure that would allow happy-hour drink specials. Eleven states restrict the sale of wine in grocery stores, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which represents grocers, including Connecticut, Maryland and New York.
“What Covid showed us is that access to products like alcohol should be more expansive,” said Geissler’s chief executive, Bob Rybick, who is the fourth generation of his family to operate a 100-year-old chain that now includes seven stores north of Hartford.
In East Windsor, near the original Geissler’s location that opened in 1923, the beer cooler is located behind the bananas next to prepared foods and fresh fish. Mr. Rybick said he would like to eventually add a half-aisle of wine—focusing on local brands.
Just a few doors down from Geissler’s, at Kaman’s, there are already two full aisles of wines from Rioja to Riesling. Owner Akshar Patel said wine accounts for 30% of the volume at his family’s 14 stores but 50% of the profits. He purchased Kaman’s 14 months ago precisely because it is located near a grocery store—as many package stores are.
“They want every little penny left,” he said of grocers.
Mr. Patel spent seven hours at the state Capitol for a Feb. 2 hearing. The bill wouldn’t allow grocery stores within 1,000 feet of package stores to sell wine, but Mr. Patel said his family would lose sales at their other stores and they fear this bill marks a slippery slope that could lead to further changes.
Grocers started building their case in 2022, conducting a poll and paying for an economic impact study, which found 84% of people support changing the law. Liquor stores say changes will mean fewer products available for consumers. Both sides claim they will do a better job marketing wines from Connecticut, which are lesser known for their quality compared with states such as California.
In Maryland, lawmakers will hold hearings this week on a bill that would let food stores buy out the liquor license of a nearby package store, and let the food store apply for a liquor license if the package store doesn’t agree to a sale at fair market value. Grocers have pushed the issue for three years; they were unsuccessful last year in getting a referendum on the ballot, according to Cailey Locklair of the Maryland Retailers Association, which has led the campaign.
Voters in Colorado narrowly approved a referendum last year that legalized the sale of wine in grocery stores starting in March.
Patrick Maroney, a consultant and former director of that state’s Liquor Enforcement Division, said many states changed their laws in the last decade to encourage the growth of craft beverages, but old restrictions are getting a new look since Covid. In each of the past two years, around 1,700 state bills dealing with alcohol sales and production were introduced and 425 were enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Associations representing New York’s liquor industry last month sent a letter to legislators out of concern that Gov. Kathy Hochul would include legalizing the sale of wine in grocery stores in her proposed budget. She didn’t, but liquor stores said they are wary of future action in the largest state where grocery stores currently can’t sell wine.
“The issue seems to once again be a hot topic. Mom and pop package stores are girding for a fight to survive,” said Steve Malito, a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Package Store Association.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, said she is interested in modernizing the state’s alcohol laws and is waiting for a report due in May from a review panel formed last year. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, is open to allowing wine sales in grocery stores and is monitoring the progress of the current legislation, a spokesman said.
The Connecticut bill would first need to clear the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature. State Rep. Mike D’Agostino, who sponsors the legislation, said a committee vote could come in the next four weeks.
Mr. D’Agostino said he enjoys wine and believes consumers should have more choices to access it. But he would continue shopping at a package store, which he expects would still have a better selection.
“They say this is ‘the land of steady habits’ for a reason,” he said.
Original article found at The Wall Street Journal.