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In March, the Arkansas legislature passed a law allowing groceries and convenience stores to sell wine from other states. Previously, only Arkansas wines could be sold by retailers other than liquor stores.
But the new law doesn't mean it's much easier for wine lovers to pick up a fine bottle along with their bread and milk. A survey of local stores shows that some have been slow to add non-Arkansas vintages to the shelves. In stores where they are sold, selection is slim.
At the Kroger on Beechwood in Hillcrest, the wine section is stocked with plenty of Wiederkehr and Post wines from Arkansas, but nothing else. A spokeswoman at Kroger regional headquarters in Memphis said that no Little Rock Kroger stores sell out-of-state wines. She also said she was unaware of any plans to begin doing so.
It appears that, since the Arkansas law is so recent, there has not been a uniform policy at some retailers. A call to the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Cantrell Road found that the store only sells Arkansas wines. Although a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said initially the company has no plans to introduce out-of-state wines, an employee at the Baseline Road store said he began stocking about 10 different California types last week. A Fort Smith store also sells from out-of-state.
One company that has taken advantage of the new law is Harvest Foods. At the Riverdale location on Cantrell, bottles from four California vintners — Black Ridge, Brownstone, Silver Peak and Stonewood — are squeezed in between Wiederkehr and Post Familie. These wineries offer grape varieties that are not grown in Arkansas, including zinfandel, pinot noir and merlot.
According to Chad Evans, director of retail operations at Harvest Foods, the stores began stocking out-of-state wines a few weeks ago. Although not all locations have them on the shelves yet, Evans said that eventually all wet-area Harvest Foods stores will carry them.
The legislature passed the March law in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2004 ruling in Granholm v. Heald. In that case, the Court concluded that a Michigan law violated the Constitution's commerce clause by discriminating in favor of local wine producers. The Michigan law banned direct wine sales to consumers from out-of-state vintners, but allowed direct sales by in-state producers.
Arkansas law still bars the direct sale of wine to consumers from out-of-state producers, but, since it also prohibits direct sales from in-state producers, that stance complies with the Granholm ruling. A bill to legalize direct sales failed in the legislature last session. According to state Rep. Jon Paul Wells of Paris, one of the bill's authors, its opponents feared it would allow minors to access alcohol through catalogue orders.
According to state Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Michael Langley, food stores were due to renew their alcohol permits under old ABC regulations in July. When the July applications were approved, food stores received a new permit that allows out-of-state sales. As a result, the new law has not caused a marked increase in retail permits around the state. Langley estimates that there have been “maybe five or 10” new applications from retailers. The E-Z Mart chain of convenience stores has submitted multiple new applications.
Langley said there has been a noteworthy increase in applications for permission to sell additional out-of-state wines in Arkansas, either direct to retailers or through existing wholesalers. Under the new law, an outside vintner's products can be sold in Arkansas food stores if it sells less than 250,000 gallons of wine a year. The wine cannot have an alcohol content of greater than 21 percent.
When the food-store law was passed in March, there was some speculation that it would hurt liquor stores. Clark Trim, who owns Colonial Wine & Spirits in Little Rock, hasn't found that to be the case with his business. “I really don't feel there has been any pressure on us at all since the law took effect,” Trim said.
The languorous pace at which groceries are stocking out-of-state wine is one reason Colonial doesn't feel pinched. Trim also said that the small producers authorized to sell in food stores aren't a big part of his market: “If someone's producing less than x number of cases, they're mainly distributing in their area.” That would also help explain the light selection in stores that do carry out-of-state wine. According to Evans, Harvest Foods stocks 15 different types.
Although Arkansas vintners produce wine from less-common native grapes — Cynthiana and muscadine are two — wine drinkers in search of well-known grape varieties might hope for an expansion of out-of-state stock in food stores soon.
In a blind taste test among nine Arkansas Times staffers, a 2005 Black Ridge chardonnay from California, purchased at a Harvest Foods store, unanimously beat out a comparably priced — but much more sugary — 2006 Post Familie chardonnay.
Whether more out-of-state wines eventually reach grocery shelves in Arkansas, package stores will remain the only option for wine buyers seeking well-known U.S. and international wines because they produce in volumes too large to qualify for grocery shelf sales.
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