John Breunig (opinion): Debate over allowing wine in CT supermarkets leaves bitter aftertaste

Wine available at Wines & Spirits of Woodbridge in Woodbridge, Conn.

Wine available at Wines & Spirits of Woodbridge in Woodbridge, Conn.

Arnold Gold/Hearst Connecticut Media
Bottles of wine on the shelves at Greenwich Wine and Spirits in the Riverside area of Greenwich, Conn. 

Bottles of wine on the shelves at Greenwich Wine and Spirits in the Riverside area of Greenwich, Conn.

Tyler Sizemore

My wine rack is empty.

Before you start to worry about my habits, the rack is usually empty. It’s more of a decoration (shaped like the Eiffel Tower) than a storage device (form over function). At least it gets more use than the unopened rack kit in the basement closet we got as a wedding present in 1995.

There is a bottle of chardonnay in the fridge that my wife cracked open in the not-too-distant past. But that’s it for actual wine in our house.

And across from where I’m sitting is a basket of corks. I toss corks in the basket after we finish a bottle of wine. There aren’t many in there considering they represent our three decades together. In fact, hold on …

Yeah, there are only 57 corks in the basket. Along with one wayward Christmas ornament and an Easter egg that was never found in the Great Hunt of 2020 (containing a pair of vintage chocolates I need to resist biting). There have been a few more corks in this house. A few found their ways to art projects (they make nifty stamps), fishing lines and fishier home repairs.

Mostly, they serve as evidence that my knowledge of wine is half empty.

But I have noticed that when we’ve traveled in recent years, we’ve returned from stocking up at supermarkets in Maine, Florida and North Carolina with at least one bottle of vino. If there wasn’t a wine aisle, we wouldn’t even think about buying it.

So yeah, we bought wine in supermarkets because it was convenient.

Somewhere, a supermarket overlord just toasted that last sentence. It’s precisely the argument 13 Connecticut supermarkets are making to persuade lawmakers to permit them to sell wine. There are polls and petitions asking people if they would support wine sales in supermarkets.

I can’t imagine checking the “no” box on that poll either. You may as well ask if I wouldn’t mind having free cable.

But it’s a messy argument. Those Connecticut packies are the underdogs, the mom-and-pops fighting for survival against Big Business. In the other corner is the Connecticut Food Association , which plays the patriotic card with a “Red, White and Food” campaign. All of this is costing a lot of money, because selling wine will surely bring in a lot more coin.

“42 states and D.C. allow the sale of wine in grocery stores. Consumers want it,” argues the campaign . “The economy needs it!”

The ledger of the liquor store … not so much. Most of their profit comes from wine sales.

We’ve seen this plot before. The corner pharmacy vs. CVS. The luncheonette vs. Starbucks. The reliable hardware store vs. Home Depot. You know how each story ends.

You might as well toss this issue to a high school debate team and let them take turns arguing each side.

SUPERMARKET: Just let shoppers choose the wine for their dinner without having to go to another store.

LIQUOR STORE: How can a state that says it supports small business do something that could close us down?

“This whole convenience argument. I don’t buy it,” Girish Patel, a liquor store owner and director of the Indian American Package Store Association , said during an editorial board meeting Wednesday. “The supermarket lobby invented a problem and they happen to have the solution to the problem. Oh, by the way, that outcome leads to windfall profits for them. I think it’s comical.”

He was joined by former state House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, who is now executive director and general counsel for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut , Inc. Cafero maintains that Connecticut’s vast number of vineyard products will “start to slip away” if the supermarkets win this fight.

It doesn’t make much sense that you can buy beer at the supermarket, but not wine or hard liquor. It’s also too late to put that back in the bottle and cork it. If wine sales are permitted, it’s easy to imagine the text of future legislation trying to stock supermarket shelves with booze and recreational marijuana.

And yeah, wine really is a food. Plus, dragging the kids into the liquor store after packing the groceries in the Odyssey to top off a meal is never fun for mom or dad.

But there are reasons I’m wary of the convenience argument. I dread taking The Kid into hardware stores and auto shops because he knows exactly where he can snag KitKat bars. I wish there were more books and fewer toys at Barnes & Noble. And I don’t need books, lawn furniture and motor oil at the supermarket. Just focus on better food options and lower prices.

At this rate we’re all going to wind up with a single superstore in every town, with carts loaded with windshield washer blades, a drone, chlorine, a block of cheese the size of your head and a jug of Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah to wash it down.

Sure, it’s convenient to buy wine in a supermarket. But liquor stores were regulated in the first place because they sell what Patel boils down to as “a product that can be dangerous if misused.”

The Connecticut Food Association petition tosses some cracker, cheese and chocolate crumbs to the liquor retailers by suggesting they be permitted to “sell salty snacks, various cheese varieties, chocolates and gift baskets.”

The CFA also serves a platter of sweet talking points, including that allowing wine in supermarkets will “enable food retailers to create more jobs.” That might be easier to swallow if the early front-line heroes of the pandemic weren’t being replaced by the expansion of self-checkout kiosks and klutzy robots.

If I were the high school debate judge, I wouldn’t be able to ignore the logic of bringing wine to the supermarkets. But there are more than 1,250 package stores in Connecticut. And my own shopping habits suggest changing the rules would cause a lot of them to become as empty as my wine rack.

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time.;