By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Oklahoma liquor retailers are gearing up for a public relations campaign to preserve a vital part of their business now that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has OK’d an initiative petition that seeks voter approval of a plan to let large grocery stores in Oklahoma’s largest counties sell wine.
The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, comprised of 80 of the state’s 640 licensed package liquor retailers, opposes the petition submitted by Oklahomans for Modern Laws, J.P. Richard, president of the retail group, said. The petition proposes a new licensing scheme for wine, which currently is sold almost exclusively at licensed liquor stores and accounts for more than half of all liquor sales by some retailers.
“This is big corporate business making a cash-flow grab,” Richard said. “All you have to do is read the language in their petition.”
The stage was set for the upcoming wine fight on Thursday when the Oklahoma Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, allowed supporters of Initiative Petition No. 396 to begin collecting voter signatures to have the measure placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Supporters have 90 days to collect the signatures of 155,216 registered voters to get the issue on the ballot.
In affirming the measure, the state’s highest court overruled constitutional challenges that the measure involved multiple subjects in violation of the single-subject rule that applies to constitutional amendments and violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because it would treat similar entities in different and unfair ways.
Currently, wine sales are restricted by the state Constitution to licensed retail package liquor stores although the state’s more than 60 wineries are permitted to sell their own vintages in their tasting rooms.
If approved in a statewide vote, the initiative petition would create a new wine license to permit the retail sale of wine for off-premises consumption by grocery stores, superstores, supermarkets and warehouse clubs that have at least 25,000 square feet of floor space. Convenience stores would be excluded.
Grocery store wine sales would be restricted to 15 Oklahoma counties whose populations are more than 50,000 and would have to be approved in advance in countywide votes. The hours and days wine could be sold in grocery stores would be the same as retail liquor outlets, meaning sales would be barred on Sundays and certain holidays.
Supporters say the measure would make it more convenient for Oklahomans to purchase a bottle of wine while shopping for groceries, a privilege that residents of more than 30 other states enjoy. And if approved, the proposal would bring about one of the biggest changes to Oklahoma liquor laws since Prohibition was repealed in 1959 and liquor-by-the-drink was allowed in bars and nightclubs on a county-option basis in 1984.
“Some consumers are going to be convenienced if this thing passes,” Richard said. ‘Yeah, we enjoy it. It’s great with food.”
But the petition is flawed because it will extend wine licenses to only a handful of grocery stores in the state’s largest urban areas and grant the stores licensing rights that traditional liquor retailers will not have, he said.
Currently, Oklahoma residents and partnerships are allowed to obtain licenses to sell wine and other liquors in package liquor stores. The licenses are limited to just one location.
But the initiative petition would allow out-of-state corporations to purchase multiple licenses for the sale of wine in counties that have approved the sales.
And wine would no longer be treated as liquor when it is sold in grocery stores but would be placed in a new category between beer that contains 3.2 percent alcohol, which is already sold in grocery and convenience stores, and liquor containing higher volumes of alcohol, which are sold exclusively in package liquor stores.
“What does it really tell you?” Richard said. Wine licenses will go to the largest grocery stores in urban areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa where wine accounts for as much as 80 percent of all liquor sales, he said.
“They’re the ones who are going to get clobbered,” Richard said.
An attorney for Oklahomans for Modern Laws, Lee Slater, declined to respond directly to Richard’s comments.
“Ultimately, if we get the number of signatures, the voters of Oklahoma will decide that, not Mr. Richard and not me,” Slater said.
Richard challenged assertions by supporters that allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores will lower prices and increase the variety of wine available.
“There’s not going to be a price break,” he said. The state does not permit franchising at the wholesale level and retailers get no discounts for volume sales.
“The price issue is a non-issue. That’s not going to happen,” Richard said. “Everybody has to buy from the distribution system. In Oklahoma, we all pay the same price. Everybody’s on an equal plain.”
Richard said his group has reached out to a network of organizations, including religious groups and those concerned with alcohol abuse and underage drinking, to join its public relations effort to defeat the measure.
“We’re not ever going to see Prohibition. But the next best thing to Prohibition is to keep the status quo,” Richard said. “If we as an industry do not self-discipline, the forces of Prohibition will come down on the industry.”