I’m not Bill Murray, and I didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. to “I Got You Babe’ on my clock radio, but I would swear its Groundhog Day at the state Capitol where, once again, big box grocery chains and their lobbyists, and lots of dollars, are conspiring to undermine Connecticut’s liquor laws with a new ‘wine in food stores’ bill: HB 5918.
Bluntly, this is a legislatively sponsored hostile takeover of one sector: retail distribution of a controlled substance -alcohol, by another: food stores, which can sell lettuce, yogurt, rice, Captain Crunch, batteries, and almost any food or non-food related product under the sun, but still want more.
So why not? Because all of us in Connecticut benefit from the way our liquor laws are written. But it’s easy not to grasp the entire issue because, well, who has the time? The topic of our post-prohibition liquor laws can be almost as confusing to people like me, who are in the wine and spirits business, as it is for people who don’t live this every day.
The big box grocery chains, and manufacturers behind them, are literally banking on this disconnect. They bait the hook with the juicy buzzwords of ‘convenience’, and ‘modernization’, confident that voters and legislators who don’t have time to grasp the entire issue will just nod and mumble “Whatever, go for it, I’ve got to get the kids on the bus and get to work.”
But you need to care, and you need to pay attention until this bill is put out of its misery.
Here is the basic backstory: Prohibition. Bad idea. It was a hammer and a nail response to address rampant alcoholism, but it created as many problems as it tried to solve, and worse, it took away some basic rights we wouldn’t put up with today. But the laws that resulted from post-Prohibition were actually pretty basic, and smart. States took on the task of writing their own laws to make wine and liquor available, just not as accessible as, say, junk food or opioids. To do this, the laws had to prevent the powerful monopolies from again dominating the marketplace and stifling competition (like what Al Capone did, just now it’s done with lobbyists instead of Tommy guns).
The key pillar of the newly written liquor laws was to separate the manufacturers from the wholesalers, and the wholesalers from the retailers; taking the ‘fix’ out of the system and allowing a marketplace of individual owners and a much greater array of craftmanship to flourish. The result in Connecticut has been an amazing number of family-owned retail (package) stores in every corner of our state, who must protect their licenses by ensuring that alcohol is legally distributed to adults, and who grow their businesses by providing a wide range of products at competitive prices (with the internet, there is no away around being competitive).
Better still, the best retailers can afford to hire knowledgeable staff and provide real customer service to keep people coming back. Not every state had that same success, but we pulled it off.
Of course we know that the money and legislative pressure behind HB 5918 is not for the benefit of ‘We the Consumer’, which is how we are viewed, but very much for the bottom line of ‘They the Big Box Stores’, who are again seeking to control the distribution of alcohol.
And if they get their bill, they will take enough business from our local retailers to put many out of business and make the rest much leaner and on the edge. Once enough competition is eliminated, prices will inevitably go up. They can hide the price increases by lowering the quality of the product, but prices will go up, and the quality selection will go down.
Big Box stores operate on streamlined inventory and efficiency. They have no room for the smaller, creative wine and spirit producers. I can take you down the aisle of a grocery store in most other states and explain that each of the many labels on the shelf are make-believe, most made by the same few manufacturers who put all the work into the marketing, not the product. It’s eye-opening. And that’s just fine for many people, but here we currently have diversity of selection to please everyone.
It’s only fitting that we just learned Lego has been lured to Boston. So why would we put effort into dismantling another sector of our economy? Talk about unforced errors, or own goals. Pick your analogy.
As of right now, before HB 5918, we don’t live in that dystopia. So please add your voice and protect one of the last, best selections of everyday and craft/artisan wines and liquor in the country, and the network of small and medium-sized suppliers, like my company, that keep the retail selections current, interesting, and appealing to everyone. There in only upside to protecting what we already have.
Doug Rankin is the Owner of Missing Link Wine Co. in West Hartford.