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Minnesota grocers renew call for bill allowing them to sell wine
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Kowalski's Markets displays a sign promoting the sale of wine in grocery stores. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Minnesota grocers are attempting to resurrect a proposal that would allow them to sell wine in their stores. The "Wine With Dinner" bill would make it easier for customers to do all of their shopping in just one stop. The bill has gone nowhere in the past three legislative sessions because of strong opposition from the liquor industry and public health groups.

St. Paul, Minn. — Critics say the bill would put liquor stores out of business. But more importantly for many groups, they fear it will cause more alcohol-related problems. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and hundreds of youth from around Minnesota rallied at the state Capitol where they called on lawmakers to "put a cork in the wine bill."

Irondale High School student Andrea Trombley lead the demonstration. She said many underage kids work in grocery stores and would figure out a way to get wine out of the store.

"I just think it would be way too easy for them to just slip on by, or forget to scan it and walk out the door with alcohol in their hands, when they're underage," she said.

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Image Students protest the bill at the Capitol

Her concerns are supported by research at the University of Minnesota. Researchers have secretly tested stores on their underage alcohol sales more than 7,000 times, according to epidemiologist Alex Wagenaar. He says liquor stores failed 17 percent of the time, while other stores had a 25 to 30 percent failure rate.

"It's not that the liquor stores are perfect. But the conclusion clearly is that grocery stores and convenience stores selling alcoholic beverages are just as, or more risky, in terms of selling to kids and to selling to people that are already drunk," Wagenaar said.

The Minnesota Grocers Association said their studies indicate the opposite is true. But they said the concerns are important and are addressed in the latest version of their bill to allow wine sales in Minnesota grocery stores.

All customers would have to show a picture I.D. to purchase wine or the sale would not ring through the check-out system. Grocers must also undergo mandatory compliance checks and have a mandatory plan to prevent liquor theft. At Kowalski's Markets in Woodbury, customer Barb Uecker thinks the bill is a good idea.

"As long as they're diligent about carding, I don't see why it would be a problem. I mean when you're planning a meal and you know you're having guests, it's just one less stop that you'd have to make," Uecker said.

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Image Kowalski's seafood section

Customer Sherry Peterson also supports the bill.

"I've been in other states where it's possible to do your grocery shopping and pick up your wine at the same time, and so I'm very much in favor of it," Peterson said.

The owner of Kowalski's Markets, Marianne Kowalski, said many of her customers feel the same way, so she doesn't understand all of the fuss from critics. She points out grocers have been able to sell other controlled substances, including cigarettes, for years.

"The suggestion that we would not be responsible kind of upsets me. ... There's no reason not to trust that we would sell this responsibly, and have the prevention and security measures to do that," Kowalski said.

Thirty-three states allow grocery stores to sell wine. Minnesota law also allows grocers to sell liquor, but they have to create a separate area for it with a separate door. Kowalski said she's not interested in that option because it's costly and inconvenient. She wants flexibility to display wine bottles near foods that people associate with wine.

"The idea is that we would have it over in the meat department, for instance. You know, be close to the meat department where people are buying seafood and prime beef and things like that," she said.

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Image Owner of BP Liquor

But Jim Barber doesn't understand the convenience argument. He owns BP Liquor in Brooklyn Park. Most grocery stores have a liquor store located nearby, he said, often in the same parking lot. He is convinced the change would hurt his profits.

"I think I could lose up to 30 percent of my bottom line. It would really be a borderline issue if we could survive," Barber said. "Maybe I'd survive if I was here and worked opening to close all by myself with no employees -- but that would be about it."

Barber said there are about a dozen well-known wines that are top sellers in his store. He predicts grocery stores would pick those same wines and sell them at a lower price. If that happened, Barber said he would have to change his inventory to compete. He would add more beer and get rid of high-end wines that don't sell quickly.

But even with those changes, Barber doubts his business could compete with today's supermarkets that have everything under one roof, from bakeries to photo labs to pharmacies.

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Image State Sen. Linda Scheid

"When I grew up there was a corner drug store in every little retail section of town. And you knew the pharmacist. He owned the store. He was local," Barber said. "They're gone, and we don't want to see our industry go that way. We don't want to be history."

Nearly everyone involved in the debate agrees that if the bill passes, Minnesotans will consume more wine. U of M researcher Alex Wagenaar studied seven states that allow wine sales in grocery stores. All of them saw a dramatic rise in wine consumption, he said. One state had a 150 percent increase. When people consume more alcohol, Wagenaar said liquor-related problems always go up.

"It's kind of common sense, really, if you think about it. If people are drinking more on average, the state's going to have more alcohol-related car crashes, more fights and assaults, more teenagers drinking, more problems associated with alcohol," Wagenaar said. A sponsor of the "Wine With Dinner" bill, Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, agrees Minnesotans will probably buy more wine if it's passed. But she doesn't think an increase in consumption will lead to more problems. She says wine drinkers, for the most part, are responsible. Besides, she says, research also shows that moderate consumption can be healthy.

"I was lying on a gurney in an emergency room a year ago with blood clots in my lungs, and the doctor's first words to me were, after he told me what was wrong with me, 'I want you to drink one to two glasses of red wine a day.' I said, 'You're kidding?' And he said, 'Oh, I'm not,'" Scheid recalled. "And we know that there's a health benefit. There's antioxidants and anti-coagulants in red wine. So more and more people are going to be drinking wine. Let's make it easier for them to purchase it."

If the "Wine With Dinner" bill doesn't pass, Scheid said it could reappear in future sessions. She's been working on this proposal since 1986.

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