By CHATTANOOGA FREE PRESS
Many residents of the Chattanooga area are understandably flummoxed by Tennessee’s silly wine laws. While wine is available in grocery stores in Georgia, picking up a bottle of cabernet in Tennessee requires a trip to the liquor store. At the same time, beer, which is generally blamed for more of society’s alcohol-related woes than wine, has been available for decades in grocery stores throughout the Volunteer State to consumers of legal age.
So what gives? Why isn’t wine already sold in Tennessee’s grocery stores?
Decades ago the state government set up a wine distribution monopoly, allowing a very small number of people to make a very large amount of money — and the greedy distributors benefiting from the system don't want that system to end.
State law dictates that wine must be sold in a package store. All of those liquor stores are divided into four regions: West, Middle, Southeast and Northeast Tennessee. Each brand of liquor and wine can only be sold to package stores in each region by one wholesaler. In other words, the company selling Kendall-Jackson wines in Southeast Tennessee is the only company allowed to sell Kendall-Jackson in the entire area. As a result, that company has a monopoly on the brand in the area and can charge whatever it wants.
This monopoly is extremely lucrative for the small handful of distributors allowed in each region. The racket is very costly for wine and liquor consumers, however, because the lack of competition means prices for alcohol are much higher than in other states.
The Volunteer State’s restrictions on wine drove Costco officials to build the Chattanooga-area location of the wholesale store two miles south of the state line in Catoosa County, Ga., rather than in Chattanooga. If Costco, which is the world’s largest wine retailer, had built the store in Tennessee, it would have been forced to build a separate building for its wine sales — an expense the company was unwilling to make. As a result, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars shifted from Hamilton County to Catoosa County.
For years, Tennessee’s state lawmakers have been bought off by contributions from liquor wholesalers. In 2013, our elected officials in Nashville should finally allow voters the opportunity to decide whether to allow wine in grocery stores.