A renewed push to allow New York supermarkets to sell wine is being fueled by a Rochester-based grocer with a devoted following that is increasing its foothold in the five boroughs.
Wegmans, the grocery chain with stores throughout much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, is throwing its weight behind a newly introduced, scaled-down bill in Albany that would allow supermarkets to stock their shelves with wine. Wegmans’ interest is helping reignite a decadeslong battle at the state Capitol that, to this point, has seen liquor stores feverishly — and successfully — defend their exclusive sales rights.
Hear WNYC Albany reporter Jon Campbell's report on efforts to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores:
The grocery chain, which has a store at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and is opening another location on Astor Place in Manhattan, has erected signs outside their stores, directing customers to a website where they can easily send messages to their local legislators in support of the measure. It’s spending at least $32,000 this month on its lobbying and public relations efforts related to the wine bill, according to state ethics disclosures.
The push is being met with significant resistance from liquor stores and their wholesale providers, who say it would change the paradigm for wine sales in New York and put many shops out of business. The same coalition successfully fended off Wegmans’ last significant effort to pass a more expansive bill back in 2010.
But supporters of the measure say the bill would simply give New Yorkers what they want: 75% of New York voters say they want wine available in grocery stores, according to a Siena College poll — which Wegmans commissioned as part of its lobbying effort.
“I think you have to start looking at wine in grocery stores from the first part of it, which is: Do people want it?” said Paul Zuber, executive vice president of the Business Council, an Albany-based business organization that has spent years lobbying on the issue. “And I think the answer obviously is yes.”
New York and Connecticut are among 11 states that do not allow grocery stores to sell wine. Like many of New York’s alcohol laws, the rules restricting wine sales to liquor stores trace back to the end of Prohibition.
In 1984, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo proposed allowing supermarkets to carry wine – but only if it was made in New York in an effort to promote the state’s wine-making industry. The effort failed.
Gov. David Paterson resurrected the push in 2010, putting his support behind a more wide-ranging effort to allow grocers to sell all sorts of wines. But the liquor stores and wholesalers rose up against it, ensuring its defeat in Albany.
Like the current push, Wegmans was the main financial driver behind the 2010 effort. But the company eased up for much of the 13 years since — hampered in part by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s opposition to the measure.
Now, Wegmans and other grocers are hoping Gov. Kathy Hochul will be more receptive, though Hochul herself has given no public indication of where she stands on the matter.
“I'm waiting to see what the Legislature does,” Hochul told reporters in Buffalo last week.
Through their lobbyists, both Wegmans and the liquor store industry have been active in the halls of the Capitol in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse) introduced a bill that would expand wine sales only to supermarkets that are at least 5,000 square feet and specialize in selling “foodstuffs.” The idea is to exclude convenience stores, bodegas and big box stores, including Walmart and Costco.
If passed, wine could be available for sale at about 1,900 grocery stores statewide, according to supporters. Previous iterations of the bill would have applied to four times as many stores.
But that’s little consolation to liquor store owners like Michael Correra, who owns Michael-Towne Wine & Spirits in Brooklyn Heights — which is across the street from a Gristedes supermarket and a mile away from the Wegmans at the Navy Yard.
Correra is head of the Metropolitan Package Store Association, one of three major New York-based liquor store organizations. Each spends between $4,000 and $5,000 a month on lobbying efforts, state lobbying records show.
He says grocery stores could easily wipe out his business if they’re allowed to sell wine.
"You'd certainly see [grocery stores] kick out Campbell's cans of soup and see them put 200, 300 wines in there,” he said. “They would be morons not to."
Under state law, liquor store owners are only allowed to own one location in the state — meaning many are of the mom-and-pop variety, which some state lawmakers have been protective of over the years.
That includes state Sen. James Skoufis, a Hudson Valley Democrat who leads the Senate’s government operations committee. The wine bill would have to pass through Skoufis’ committee on the way to the Senate floor for a vote.
“You go to other states and there are no mom-and-pop liquor stores,” Skoufis said in an interview. “You get your liquor from Costco, you get your liquor from Sam's Club and other big chains. And we made the right decision to not go down that path a long time ago.”
Krueger, a veteran lawmaker who heads the powerful Senate finance committee, said she knows building support for legislation can take time. She’s been pushing the effort to bring wine to grocery stores for more than a decade, but she said it’ll take time to explain the benefits of her scaled-down bill to her colleagues.
"If there's enough momentum for it, great — I’d be happy to bring it to the floor,” she said of the bill’s chances this year. “But I don't sincerely know where leadership is or the governor is."
Hochul, meanwhile, suggested she may be more amenable to what she called the “low-hanging fruit” — a series of proposed changes to the state’s alcohol laws proposed by a state commission earlier this year.
Among them were relaxing the state’s rules on how closely bars can be located near religious institutions, or allowing for alcohol sales before noon on Sundays. (The commission, which included a variety of alcohol industry representatives including Correra and Zuber, voted against expanding wine sales to grocery stores.)
Skoufis, who sponsors those proposals in a single omnibus bill, said Senate Democrats support moving forward with them in some form. But he acknowledged that making even small changes to the state’s alcohol laws is difficult, since there are so many competing interests who support or oppose every change.
He compared the effort to a Jenga tower.
“You pull out one block and the whole tower starts to shake,” he said.
The Legislature’s annual session is scheduled to end on June 8.