State Politics

Political heavyweights battle over wine in grocery stores in Mississippi

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Bottles of Stella Rosa are lined up on the shelf at Rouses grocery store in Gulfport, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. The state legislature will consider allowing grocery stores to sell 'real' wine.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Bottles of Stella Rosa are lined up on the shelf at Rouses grocery store in Gulfport, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. The state legislature will consider allowing grocery stores to sell 'real' wine. SUN HERALD

The effort to put wine in grocery stores has some of the trappings of a grass-roots movement: website, Facebook community with more than 900 members, a newsletter and a Twitter feed. But the real fight will take place in the legislature in Jackson with powerful lobbyists on both sides of the issue.

The fine print at the bottom of the Looking for Wine website points to Cornerstone Governmental Affairs, a firm with offices in Washington, Chicago, Jackson and across the Southeast.

Among Looking for Wine lobbyist Camille Young's other clients are Mississippi Power, the state chamber of commerce, Save the Children, Mississippi State University, C Spire Wireless, Nissan North America and a several others.

She said Wal-Mart and Kroger are the corporate members of the coalition that includes hundreds of Mississippi residents. She said other companies are considering joining.

The Mississippi Hospitality Beverage Association opposes such changes to the way wine reaches consumers. In fact, longtime lobbyist Buddy Medlin said, that's the reason liquor store owners brought him in 25 or 30 years ago -- to keep wine out of grocery stores.

But he's not just the head of the association, he also runs the lobbying firm Buddy Medlin and Associates. His clients include Phillip Morris parent Altria Client Services, AT&T, Mississippi Association for Home Care, Mississippi Chiropractic Association, among others.

He said there has never been a serious effort to expand the wine market to grocery stores until the past couple of years. Liquor stores, he said, are mostly mom-and-pop operations. In fact, a person in Mississippi can own only one liquor store. Kroger and Wal-Mart own dozens of stores across the state.

David v. Goliath

"If the big-box distributors, Wal-Mart and what-not, take it over, it would diminish the livelihood" of the liquor store owners, he said. "They would lose that business.

"It's a real battle of us versus them. They have some real capable and respectable lobbyists."

But Young said putting wines in grocery store should expand the market.

"We really expect it to have a high economic impact," she said. "All of our neighbors have it."

She said people living near the state line are shopping at stores in Louisiana and Alabama.

"It's because of the convenience," she said.

Medlin is skeptical of claims the expansion would bring more money.

"I haven't seen any evidence of that," he said. "I don't think the state would realize the profits they're talking about."

Medlin said Mississippi's method, known in the industry as a control system, isn't broken and doesn't need to be fixed.

"There's never been anything discolored about the system," he said. "Obey the laws or get kicked to the side."

A bigger conversation

State Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, introduced a bill last year that would have allowed stronger wine in grocery stores had it not died in committee. This year, he hopes the legislature takes an even broader look at the ABC.

"I just want to have a conversation about: Is the ABC model we're using today, the Alcohol Beverage Control model, what we need and are there some improvements we need to make to the system?" he said. "I'm looking at it from a holistic perspective. Let's just take it from the top. Let's ask a lot of questions and let's get input from as many people as we can."

DeLano said he's starting the conversation because he's from the Coast where people are more accustomed to talking about alcohol than other parts of the state, many of which remain dry. And he wants to talk about the small changes in the alcohol laws that could help the mom-and-pop liquor stores, even if wine is sold at the grocery.

"It's ridiculous a liquor store can't sell food items like cheese or bread or meat, salami," he said. He also said he would like to look at the reporting requirements for liquor stores, which he says gives rivals an unfair advantage.

"Do you know liquor stores have to submit all their sales to the state and there's a report that anybody can run that shows all the sales from every single liquor store in the state?" DeLano said. "I can see what my competitor is doing."

He said he's on the side of the consumer.

"How can we better provide sales to the consumer?" he said. "I'm open to every idea. I'm willing to sit down with everybody."

DeLano said Tennessee has decided to allow wine in grocery stores starting in July, so Mississippi can watch and learn from its neighbor.

"There were some concessions that were given to liquor stores to allow them to increase their sales per square foot to make up for whatever loss they have in wine," he said.

Selection in question

Some consumers say it's not just the convenience of grocery shopping they want; it's also a larger selection. But Medlin and an ABC spokesman both said wine drinkers have access to virtually any wine.

"I've heard them say they cannot get this wine, cannot get that wine," Medlin said. "ABC does have special order. You can order any that's available in the US."

Kathy Waterbury, spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue, said ABC had more than 8,000 wines "typically always available from the warehouse." She said if a store or restaurant orders from that list of wines by 11 a.m., that order should arrive the next day, except in the busiest holidays. The ABC also fulfilled 5,000 special orders last year, she said.

"If we have a product that's not listed, they can go to their package store and order that and we'll order it for them from a winery or distillery and then we'll ship that to them as soon as we receive it if we're able to get it," she said. "We also have items we call select wine list where we purchase items that do not meet the quota for being listed but we do have some customers in the state ask for it from time to time. It's pretty much the high-end stuff but we are selling it, so we carry some. There are about 175 wines on that list."

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