Bid for wine in grocery stores blocked

March 22, 2023

Legislative committee lets deadline pass without voting on bill

By Christopher Keating

Hartford Courant

A controversial move to allow Connecticut supermarkets to sell wine for the first time was blocked Tuesday by a key legislative committee.

The general law committee reached its deadline without voting on the proposal, meaning it was defeated. While any proposal can resurface later in an amendment, the lack of a vote by the committee that oversees alcohol marks a major blow to the proposal.

The clash was among the most high-profile battles of the current legislative session, drawing hundreds of package store owners and supermarket employees to the state Capitol complex for a public hearing over the high-stakes market for selling wine — the most profitable item in package stores.

“It’s a pretty big setback” for the supermarkets, said Jean M. Cronin, chief lobbyist and executive director of the Connecticut Package Stores Association. “The committee just wasn’t receptive of the message. It’s not an access issue. People have plenty of opportunity with the locations and the hours that package stores are open to get these products. … The committee of jurisdiction heard all that testimony and couldn’t muster the votes to get the bill out of committee. Doing a head count, they realized they did not have the votes.”

The supermarkets argued repeatedly that consumers were pushing for the idea as a convenience so they could buy wine in one-stop shopping instead of making a separate trip to the package store.

But the state’s 1,250 independent package stores fought back strongly against the proposal, saying that some stores might go out of business because wine is their most profitable product. The package stores portrayed the clash as a David vs. Goliath battle with small, family-owned retailers up against major players like Stop & Shop, a gigantic Dutch corporation with more than 60,000 employees and billions in annual revenues.

More than 350 people submitted testimony on House Bill 5918 to the general law committee, and advocates on each side filled the atrium last month at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Wayne Pesce, the president and guiding spirit of the Connecticut Food Association, said that the grocery stores would continue the fight in the future.

“An overwhelming majority of the public supports the sale of wine in supermarkets,” Pesce said Tuesday. “While the votes aren’t there in this particular legislative committee at this time, we believe that in the future, when the issue comes to a vote of the full legislature, this consumer-friendly bill will pass.”

The supermarkets, their lobbyists and an economics professor argued that the package stores would not be hurt by the proposal.

But Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who is among the longest-serving legislators, said the argument that the package stores would not be hurt was “unbelievable” to him. He said he has seen smaller, local stores affected by their larger competitors in various industries, such as hardware.

“The big fish gobble up the little fish,” Kissel said last month. “I don’t think this is a good direction for the state of Connecticut.”

While the package store owners have fought numerous battles through the years regarding Sunday sales and extended hours, they said the latest proposal marked the biggest threat to their livelihood.

Stepping up their campaign this year, the supermarkets hired one of the most prominent lobbying firms at the state Capitol, known as Gaffney Bennett, and a key figure for the firm in the battle was former House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a well-known political leader who became a lobbyist after retiring from the state legislature. Aresimowicz could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Numerous groups have a stake in the battle, including farm wineries, supermarkets, Teamsters members who deliver liquor around the state, the newly created Indian American Package Stores Association, and the wine and spirits wholesalers.

“For today’s time-starved shoppers, the sale of wine exclusively through package stores no longer makes sense,” the supermarkets say on a website created for the issue. “Connecticut residents should be able to buy wine where they buy their food instead of having to make a separate trip somewhere else. As grocery retailers and their customers work to recover from the pandemic, we believe the time has come for Connecticut to remove existing barriers to the sale of wine in grocery stores and enable food retailers to create more jobs, help consumers reduce their daily travel needs, and provide new sources of revenues for the state’s budget.”

The two sides argued over the convenience for consumers, but the package stores stressed that many stores are currently open 92 hours per week — the maximum time allowed by the state over seven days in a highly regulated, age-restricted industry.

Opponents of the bill have said that they were not exaggerating that stores might close. James Valentine, co-owner of the multistore Connecticut Beverage Mart, said previously that he was forced to close the New Britain store in January 2021 after losing business to a Total Wine superstore and Costco that are each about a half-mile away on either side of the package store. The owners said they were paying $70,000 in annual property taxes for their 13,000-square-foot New Britain store, which was losing money.

Known as the land of steady habits, Connecticut has one of the strongest systems in the country for package stores. By contrast, 42 states and Washington, D.C., currently allow wine sales in grocery stores. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine all allow wine sales in supermarkets, but Rhode Island and New York do not.