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Uncorked

The state legislature studies a bill to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

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A few years ago, I went into downtown's Corkscrew to buy a bottle of wine. After years of living with roommates, I had a new one-bedroom apartment. What I didn't have, I realized as I was about to pay, was my own corkscrew.

And under Tennessee law, the Corkscrew wasn't allowed to sell them.

Luckily, a nearby market and deli — which sold beer and not wine — carried corkscrews. It wasn't the first time, nor the last, that I thought Tennessee's liquor laws were, well, screwy.

But Tennesseans soon might be tasting change.

The state Senate is considering a bill that would allow grocery stores to sell wine. It also would allow liquor stores to sell ice, soft drinks, mixers, and yes, corkscrews.

To the change I say, wine not?

The Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association is, understandably, a proponent of the bill. With its Red White and Food campaign, it notes that 33 states currently allow wine sales in retail food stores. The group estimates the state would gain an additional $18 million in revenue if the bill passes.

Because it threatens to crush their wine monopoly, liquor stores are just as understandably against the bill. They say grocery store wine sales will not only hurt their business, it will encourage underage drinking.

Supported in part by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee and the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, the Tennesseans Against Teen Drinking's website argues that the bill will put "wine on the shelves of grocery and big box stores ... and right in the line of sight of any teenager entering their doors."

But if grocery stores are responsible enough to sell beer and, in some cases, pharmaceuticals, there's no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to sell wine.

Besides, I've been in stores in other states that have separate areas — where minors are not allowed — for beer and wine displays. It's not like retailers are going to put the wine next to the Cheerios.

(In an interesting discrepancy, the Red White and Food campaign says that wine is rarely the choice of adult beverage for underage drinkers. On the other side, Tennesseans Against Teen Drinking says that studies show minors experiment more with wine than beer.)

For both industry groups, it really comes down to money. Tennesseans Against Teen Drinking notes that the state's fiscal review committee estimates that under the grocery store proposal 2,700 new stores would be able to sell wine, more than five times the number of stores that sell it today. That's quite an increase in competition.

I feel for wine sellers. I do. I'm in an industry facing a tectonic shift, as well. The last thing you want to do is lose your competitive edge.

But I think looser liquor laws will be better for consumers, both in terms of convenience and cost. Grocery store wine sales will provide competition, which typically results in lower prices, and I know I would buy a lot more wine if it was sold on an aisle in Superlo.

At the same time, people who are serious about wine or who want pairing recommendations for food aren't going to go to Kroger.

I wonder if liquor stores could take this as an opportunity to evolve, maybe see the wine glass as half full.

A few months ago, I went to a bachelorette party in Texas. Actually, it was more like a bachelorette weekend. It was a marathon 48 hours of beer, wine, and shots, all done in carefully timed intervals with breaks for dancing, food, and sleep.

When I heard one of our afternoon destinations was a wine store, I thought, why are we all going? Send someone to pick up a few bottles and bring them back to the hotel.

What I didn't realize was that the wine store was more than just a wine store. Sure, the front had several rows of fine wines. The back, however, was a cozy bistro with a bar, several booths, and flat-screen televisions tuned to cooking shows. We grabbed a table and ordered a tasting flight, as well as an orgy of cheese and crackers.

We were there for several hours, and it was probably the best part of the weekend: very relaxing, very fun. Our sommelier was knowledgeable and totally nice. And I couldn't help but think, why don't we have something like this in Memphis?

Maybe an overhaul of the liquor laws is in order. It would make 2009 a very good year.

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