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Pa. House votes to expand wine sales in grocery stores

Natasha Lindstrom
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Bottles of wine are displayed near Hacker-Pschorr Weisse beer in a grocery store in Illinois. Pennsylvania's grocery stores moved a step closer to selling takeout wine on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.
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AFP/Getty Images
A glass of rose wine is shown at the Chateau Sainte-Marguerite vineyard in La Londe-les-Maures, France.

Pennsylvania’s supermarkets, convenience stores and gas stations moved a step closer to selling takeout wine Tuesday.

On a 157-31 vote, the state House approved a Senate-revised plan to expand wine sales, modernize state-owned wine and spirits stores and lessen restrictions on alcohol retailers and customers who have long clamored for updates to the state’s Prohibition-era liquor laws.

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statement expressing optimism about the passage of “historic liquor modernization legislation” — without signaling certainty that he will sign the bill into law.

“As I have always said, my goal is to modernize the sale of liquor and beer in Pennsylvania to ensure convenience and satisfaction for customers,” said Wolf, a Democrat who last year vetoed an attempt by the GOP-controlled legislature to sell the state’s liquor stores. “Once the bill reached my desk, I will conduct a final review of the legislation to ensure it meets my goals of enhancing the customer experience, increasing much-needed revenue to help balance our budget and bringing our wine and spirits sales into the 21st century.”

Under House Bill 1690, about 14,000 takeout beer license holders, grocery stores, hotels, delis and gas stations with the seating capacity to obtain restaurant licenses could sell as many as four bottles of wine per customer.

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts noted the multi-state grocery chain’s customers “in other markets have long enjoyed the convenience of purchasing wine in our supermarkets.”

“We look forward to introducing the offering to Pennsylvania consumers,” Roberts said.

Wine and beer sales would continue to be made at registers separated from food sales cashiers, as is the case with grocery stores that now sell beer. The proposal allows for the direct shipment of wine to homes.

It doesn’t extend wine sales into beer distributors — though some Western Pennsylvania outlets wish it did.

“We would be very interested in selling wine,” said Debbie Backos, a cashier at Beer on Butler in Lawrenceville. “We’re kind of excited about constructing some kind of wine rack behind the counter here.”

The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents 3,200 retail food stores statewide, lauded the legislation as “a significant first step” — but said it doesn’t go far enough. The group would prefer moves toward full liquor privatization, such as letting grocery stores sell 30-packs of beer and nixing seating requirements.

“We’d like to see an open market; we don’t have any opposition to allowing the market forces to take hold and allow people to compete,” PFMA spokesman Alex Baloga said. “We don’t really favor any kind of restriction channels for retailers.”

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County, said the legislation could generate $150 million in revenue and that Wolf “has indicated that he would sign the bill in its current form.”

“It is time to put that money where it belongs instead of propping up an antiquated and outdated liquor system,” Reed said.

The bipartisan-approved bill drew criticism from union advocates for state liquor clerks and some beer distributors who cited concerns about increased competition.

Brent Shiner, owner of Golden Ohm Beer in Plum, said he’s not too worried about competing with gas stations and convenience stores as long as neighborhood distributors retain exclusive rights to sell beer in large quantities.

“Sure, it might be the same customers, but I’m not going to be open at midnight on a weekday to sell a case of beer,” Shiner said. “People are going to realize that they could pay fifteen bucks for a six pack from them or they could pay $20 for a 24-pack from me.”

He’d be more wary of big-box beer rivals such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Total Wine.

“That would be tough,” Shiner said.

The proposal does not get the state out of the liquor business.

It would, however, provide more flexible pricing options and allow more state stores to expand their hours and open on Sundays.

The conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation — which favors selling the state stores — said the bill “leaves undone critical elements of true privatization.” It estimates that as few as 300 grocery stores would qualify for wine sales.

Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy for the Commonwealth Foundation, said the proposal “falls short of the convenience customers have in almost every other state.”

Of all 50 states, only Pennsylvania and Utah retain full control of retail and wholesale wine and liquor sales.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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