Wine bottles at a package store in East Hartford Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Connecticut grocery store operators clashed Thursday with the state’s package store owners during an expected all-day public hearing on legislation that would change a longstanding law preventing the sale of wine at grocery stores.

The bill, raised last month by the legislature’s General Law Committee, would permit supermarkets to sell cider and wine made by wineries that produce less than 100,000 gallons per year. The change would not apply to markets located within 1,000 feet of a package store.

Thursday’s public hearing prompted an outpouring of feedback as representatives from both industries and state wineries flooded the Legislative Office Building and filed hundreds of pieces of written testimony. 

While package store owners sought last month to dissuade lawmakers from considering the bill, grocery stores pushed back Thursday with a morning press conference and through testimony arguing in support of the change.

Michael D’Amour, a Somers resident and chief operating officer of Big Y Foods, said the bill would move Connecticut closer to 42 other states, which already allow grocery stores to sell wine. D’Amour said the change would extend a convenience to consumers, who frequently ask store managers “where’s the wine?”

“We’re not looking to put anyone out of business, rather we want the opportunity to sell the products our customers are specifically requesting we carry,” D’Amour said in written testimony.

The proposal is one which the state’s package store industry is well accustomed to fending off and during Thursday’s hearing Connecticut Package Stores Association Executive Director Jean Cronin remarked that it was fitting the proceedings were taking place on Groundhog Day.

Cronin argued the bill would pull the rug out from under liquor store owners who built their business models and projected revenues and expenses based on the rules as they stand now. 

“This would completely change the rules for governing how alcoholic beverages are sold in this state,” Cronin said. “Overnight, it would allow more than 850 grocery beer permit outlets to possibly expand to wine. This would represent a 68% increase in venues that can sell the most profitable product in a package store. This is a game-changer and it will completely upend business plans.”

Bob Rybick, president and CEO of Geissler’s Supermarkets, disagreed and said the change could benefit smaller food markets looking for an edge to help their businesses compete with their larger rivals as well as help to promote small Connecticut wineries. 

“This proposal is not about the big guy supermarket up against the little guy package store,” Rybick said. “There are so many local food stores like mine that would benefit immensely from the passage of a bill like this, not to mention the Connecticut vineyards, wineries and farms that would also gain exposure and revenue as well.”

The provision of the bill which requires that grocery stores sell wine from smaller wineries does not require those wineries to be located in Connecticut. Although the policy is designed to benefit state vineyards, General Law Committee co-chairman Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said such a requirement would run afoul of the Commerce Clause. 

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, prompted applause from package store owners in the conference room when he speculated the change would eventually lead to all wines being sold in Connecticut grocery stores. 

“The fact that this is being posited as it’s not going to hurt the smaller package stores, I find unbelievable and the nature of the economy I’ve seen is the big fish gobble up the little fish,” Kissel said.