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Forum debates grocery wine sales bill

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Supporters and opponents of selling wine in grocery stores held a spirited discussion in a forum held by the bill's sponsors. Karen Dewitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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The Senate sponsor of a bill to permit the sale of wine in grocery stores, Tom O’Mara represents portions of the Finger Lakes, and says he has the largest number of wineries among his constituents than any other district.  He believes expanding the sales of wine into grocery stores would help an industry that’s fourth in size in the nation, but only 11th in sales. He asked the roundtable of wineries, liquor store and grocery store owners for their opinions and said he welcomed an “honest and frank discussion.”

“I’m not looking for an argument,” said Senator O’Mara.

But that’s just what happened at times, as the bill pitted one small business, small wineries, against another,–independent, Mom and Pop liquor stores.

Tina Hazlitt, with Saw Mill Creek Winery, on Seneca Lake, says despite the ever increasing quality of New York wines the industry is troubled. She says grape growers are going out of businesses, and despite her family’s numerous awards for its wine, they’ve had to leave grapes on the ground because they couldn’t sell them.

“Something is wrong,” said Hazlitt. “The market is not there for our wineries.” 

Beth Endres-Leonelli, who along with her husband, runs Vineyards Wine and Spirits outside of Albany, told the wineries that if they care about their family businesses, then they should understand why she opposes a measure that could drive her family out of their jobs. 

“It’s hard when the state wants to pull the rug out from under you,” said Leonelli.

Leonelli belongs to the Last Store on Main Street coalition, made up of liquor store owners and others , who claim 1000 stores will be put out of business, and 4500 jobs will be lost if wine were permitted in grocery stores.

Paul Speranza, with the Wegman’s grocery chain, counters that 6000 new jobs would be created. He says his stores alone would create 250 jobs if they were permitted to sell wine.

“When you have 60% of the consumers of this state year after year saying they want wine in grocery stores,” Speranza said. “It would seem to me that the folks on the other side of the table ought to come to the table.”

Assemblyman Dean Murray, of Suffolk County on Long Island, also attended the hearing. Murray says he has the second largest number of wineries in his district, but he’s against the measure, saying “there’s absolutely no question” the bill would hurt mom and pop liquor stores.

“There is going to be a victim in this,” Assemblyman Murray said.

Assemblyman Murray says there’s no guarantee that grocery stores would be any more committed to selling New York State wines, and might feature the mass produced wines from California and Australia that many independent liquor stores now feature. Both liquor store owners and grocery chains in favor of the measure say they would make more of an effort to feature local wines. 

Both sides also attempted to make the case that the other venue would promote more teenaged drinking.

Assembly sponsor of the wine in grocery stores bill, Joseph Morelle, put an end to that debate, saying “nobody believes that”.

“This is really an economic issue,” said Morelle, who said the key is to find a solution that works for everyone doing business in essentially the same “sand box”.

In the end no conclusions were reached by the group.

There was one argument for legalizing wine in grocery stores that was not mentioned in the debate. It’s estimated that the state would gain nearly $350 million dollars in revenue through licensing fees and alcohol taxes, which would be welcome income for the perennially cash strapped state.

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