Nectar of the Clods

The fight over the state budget in Albany is impossible to explain, and even if I tried to do so, it would just make you feel terrible about New York's wretched political culture. So let's look at one small piece of it that everybody can relate to:

Wine in grocery stores.

You may have noticed that there isn't any. New York is one of 15 states that restricts the sale of wine to licensed liquor stores. Governor David Paterson's budget would have allowed grocery stores to sell it, too. The governor claimed that consumers would benefit from lower prices and more convenient access and that the revenue from the additional sales, plus the permits grocery stores would have to buy, would rake in $250 million in additional state revenue.

The legislature, in its budget, killed the whole idea. While anything could happen in Albany -- negotiations are under way, etc. etc. -- the wine idea appears to be on the ropes.

I think it's just as well. However, my position has two great weaknesses: First of all, it presumes that the state legislature is capable of making a good decision. Doesn't happen often, and in this case, if they're right, it's completely by accident.

The legislators just have closer ties to the liquor store owners' lobby than the grocery store owners' lobby. Plus the liquor store owners are supported by an unholy cohort of other lobbies, including the Teamsters union and liquor distributors, who don't want any change in the crazed, archaic system by which alcoholic beverages make their way to the New York market.

The liquor store owners, who are of course the main opponents of any change, have tons of arguments, most of them specious. They'll tell you that letting grocery stores sell wine will lead to lower prices, and therefore more alcoholism -- as if they went into the liquor business in order to combat substance abuse. They also warn that kids will find it easier to buy alcohol if they can get it off the supermarket shelves. But the grocery stores already sell beer, the drink of choice for most kids, so it would seem as if that horse has already left the barn.

The liquor stores also present themselves as the defenders of quality, without whom the public would be left with nothing but Two Buck Chuck and wine-in-a-box. This is only true if you believe that the average owner is a connoisseur of fine wines. I have been to a few liquor stores in my time, and many of the people behind the counter wouldn't know a Merlot from a Muscadet. If anything, the high-end food stores like Whole Foods might make shopping for quality wine easier.

The owners claim they purchased their licenses to sell alcohol under one set of rules, and now the state is trying to change the game after they've made their investment. This is a reasonable complaint if you're say, the owner of a city cab medallion and paid $400,000 for the right to pick up passengers. But even in New York City, where the licenses are most expensive, you're only talking about $4,000 every three years.

The only genuine argument for keeping the status quo is that competition from grocery stores will drive some liquor stores out of business. The owners' lobby estimates that more than a third of the 2,700 existing stores will fold. Even if that's an exaggeration, it's undeniably true that a bunch of small businesses will fail. Far more jobs will be lost from the closures than will be gained from expanded trade at the grocery stores.

And right now, that's enough for me. In a better economy, sure. Let them fight for their share of the market like anybody else. But right now, the vision of shelves of chardonnay at the A&P isn't quite seductive enough to make up for more people on the unemployment lines.

Sure, the governor's idea is more rational. But we live in New York. Rationality was never in the cards.