Wine closer to store shelves

HARRISBURG — Grocery stores that already sell beer can start the application process today to add wine to their shelves.

It remains unclear, though, when they will actually start selling wine to consumers.

The liquor reform law, which passed in June and officially takes effect today, allows supermarkets and convenience stores with restaurant-style licenses to sell up to four bottles of wine per transaction.

About 350 stores already sell beer from in-store cafes or are applying for licenses to do so.

Dennis Curtin, a spokesman for the Sunbury-based Weis Markets, said the chain is “extremely interested” in adding wine to its 48 Pennsylvania stores that already sell beer.

It has 119 supermarkets in the state.

How quickly that will happen isn’t clear, though.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.

When lawmakers passed the liquor reform law, some suggested that shoppers would be able to get wine in supermarkets by Thanksgiving.

A spokesman for the Liquor Control Board said the wait may not be that long. Shawn Kelly said the board intends to spell out the process more thoroughly this week.

But, in addition to that process, Curtin said store managers will have to figure out how to get wine into parts of their stores that are already stocked with beer.

Giant Eagle, which sells beer in 35 of its 95 Pennsylvania stores, issued a statement that didn’t say how quickly it will put wine on its shelves.

“Giant Eagle customers in other markets have long enjoyed the convenience of purchasing wine in our supermarkets, and we applaud the efforts made by the state to introduce the offering to Pennsylvania consumers,” the statement read.

David McCorkle, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said he expects every grocery that sells beer to move to add wine.

The law also allows more stores to get licenses for beer and wine, he noted.

The Liquor Control Board can auction expired licenses, which helps more stores break into beer and wine sales. Because of that, McCorkle said the number of supermarkets with beer and wine could quickly triple to about 1,000.

“Pennsylvania has always been a state where change comes incrementally,” he said. “This is a real breakthrough.”

Even so, many stores will be frozen out, said McCorkle, whose group represents 3,200 food stores.

The biggest hurdle remains the number of beer-and-wine licenses available in the first place.

“Restaurant licenses are not available in some parts of the state, and that’s a problem,” he said. “We need to find some way to improve the availability.”

To get those restaurant-style licenses, stores must have cafes.

That means, even with a revised law, beer and wine sales will be limited to “the few hundred of the bigger and newer stores,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy for The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Benefield said the liquor reform is “a good first step,” but proponents “oversold” its benefits.

Grocery stores still get wine from the state liquor system, he said, which means “some bureaucrat in Harrisburg” continues to decide what consumers can buy.

Additional changes to the liquor law are unlikely as long as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is in office, he added.

“This is the best that Wolf will sign,” he said.