DENVER — To this day in Colorado, if a shopper wants to pick up a bottle of wine along with ingredients for dinner, it usually requires two stops, one at a grocery store and one at a liquor store. Since prohibition, for the most part this has been the case.
However, a question on the November ballot asks voters whether they want to change that. It is one of three alcohol-related measures on November's ballot.
What Proposition 125 does
Proposition 125 asks voters if they want to allow for the sale of wine in grocery stores and convenience stores by automatically converting their beer retail license into a beer and wine retail license.
If approved, starting March 1, 2023, people would be able to pick up wine along with their groceries without needing to make another stop.
A limited number of grocery stores are already allowed to sell beer, wine and spirits with a drugstore liquor license, which is different than a retail liquor license. This ballot question, if approved, will make it so that all grocery stores with a beer retail license will be able to automatically begin selling wine starting next year.
The Great Compromise
For years, grocery stores were only allowed to sell full-strength beer at one of their locations in the state. Every other location was limited to selling 3.2% alcohol beer (known as near beer).
In 2016, however, the rules changes with a bill that passed in the state legislature and an 11th hour deal known as the Great Compromise by those in the alcohol industry.
“Part of that compromise was that the grocers got a limited amount of licenses, full-strength licenses for beer, wine and spirits, over a certain amount of time,” said Chris Fine, the executive director of the Licensed Beverage Association.
First, grocers were allowed to have five of these licenses, then eight, then 13 starting in 2027, 20 beginning in 2032, and finally, unlimited beer licenses in 2037. However, the licenses strictly applied to full-strength beer.
Now, voters will be asked whether it’s time for grocery stores and convenience stores to also be able to sell wine along with the beer.
For the Sake of Convenience
For supporters of Proposition 125, this ballot measure is about one thing: convenience. It means that customers will be able to pick up a bottle of wine along with their groceries without needing to make stops at multiple stores each time.
“Consumers have demanded this,” said Michelle Lyng, a spokesperson for the Wine in Grocery Stores ballot measure. “Full-strength beer has been a wild success in grocery stores. Consumers love it; grocery stores love it.”
Now, Lyng says the grocery stores would like to try to replicate that success and customer convenience by offering wine as well.
Beyond that, Lyng says wine was always supposed to be part of that Great Compromise but was taken out in the final hours of those discussions. Nevertheless, she says this was always the plan.
Already, 37 other states across the country have approved sales of wine in grocery stores. This change would put Colorado on par with those states.
When full-strength beer was allowed in grocery stores, there was a considerable amount of opposition from liquor stores in the state who worried that the change would force some of them to close.
“Some of the very same people predicted that full-strength beer in grocery stores would put 700 liquor stores out of business and that's just not the case,” Lyng said.
A similar argument is now being made for allowing wine in grocery stores, but Lyng says she doesn’t buy it.
She’s asking people to vote yes on this ballot measure for the sake of convenience.
The Final Blow
At small liquor stores across the state, buying a bottle of wine is as much about the experience as it is the taste.
Carolyn Joy is the owner of Joy Wine and Spirits in Denver, a business her father first owned in 1963. She prides herself on having a wide selection of wine and a knowledgeable staff that can help customers feel confident in their selection.
“It's not all about convenience. Like there's a lot of fun that happens in the store,” Joy said.
When full-strength beer was allowed in grocery stores, Joy and other liquor stores say that their sales dropped dramatically.
“Overnight, we saw a decline in sales,” she said.
Fine reports that his members experienced a 30% drop in beer sales. The COVID pandemic brought in more customers, however, which ended up being a saving grace for some stores.
Many also pivoted their business to focus more on selling craft beers from local brewers that large grocery retailers won’t feature.
However, there is not the same type of availability with wines as there is with local craft beers, and the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association estimates that allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell wine would result in anywhere from 500-800 businesses being forced to close.
“For my business, this would be very devastating. They've already had a huge impact on our beer sales, and I know it would have a huge impact on my wine sales,” Joy said.
Right now, there are roughly 1,600 independent mom-and-pop liquor stores throughout the state. About half of those stores are owned by women and about two-thirds are owned by people who have English as a second language.
Fewer businesses could also mean less variety since larger retailers are likely to feature similar products in their stores.
“There's one buyer. So that one buyer is going to be buying for multiple stores, and you're going to see the same things in the same places in all the stores,” Joy said. “What matters to a large business, obviously, is numbers. They're not looking at, how does this bottle taste? Or who produced this? Or how are the grapes farmed?”
Fine worries about the effects of this ballot measure on the families that own those businesses. He’s also concerned about the trickle-down effects this could have on craft distillers and craft brewers who will have fewer places to sell their products if these local liquor stores go out of business.
In the end, critics of the ballot proposal argue that the Great Compromise was supposed to be just that, a compromise meant to last 20 years. If the major retailers are going to try to rework the deal now just a few years after making it, opponents wonder what’s to stop them from going after even more in the future.
“It's just a matter of time before they're going to want spirits. This is, again, just about greed. It's not really about consumer convenience. It's not about what's best for Colorado,” Fine said.
Big money is being spent on this ballot measure. Instacart, Whole Foods, Target, Safeway and Kroger are just some of the big name brands that have contributed millions on this campaign and who stand to gain millions from its passage.
Voters have been asked about adding wine to grocery stores before, in 1984, but rejected the idea. If the ballot measure passes, it will mean wine will be more widely available in stores and there will be more alcohol in the community.
For retailers, this ballot question comes down to convenience, however liquor stores say that convenience comes with a cost.
In November, it will be up to voters to decide which of those principles matters more.
Full ballot guide
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