By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Correspondent
The issue has become so heated, so emotional, that some wineries feel threatened. Liquor stores are predicting widespread closures and job losses if the bill passes. And while New York wineries figured this was not their war to wage, they increasingly find themselves dragged into the debate. What's going on?
Is everyone playing fair?
There is no doubt that wineries feel threatened by liquor stores. After speaking to 15 winemakers and winery owners in the Finger Lakes, only two agreed to speak to me on the record. All said they've felt pressure from angry liquor store owners to support the liquor stores vs. grocery stores. Six told me they were surveyed by phone for an official position on the issue, with the warning that the "wrong position" could result in a boycott of their wines among liquor store owners.
Fox Run Vineyards owner Scott Osborn testified in Albany last week in support of the bill. Since his testimony, Fox Run has been flooded with angry phone calls and emails, like this one from Frank Salamone of Hoosick Street Wine in Troy:
I saw you on the news yesterday. Thanks for trying to put me out of business. I used to like pushing your wines but now just looking at them makes me want to puke. I'll never sell any of your wines ever again! When we beat this proposal I hope it's you that goes under.
"It's unfortunate, and it's been hard," Osborn said, noting that Hoosick Street has not carried Fox Run wines for at least the past year. "I want a solution that will allow liquor stores to thrive, and I think they still can. We've had great relationships with stores around the state, and we're committed to helping them in any way we can. Having our wine in grocery stores does not mean we want other stores to fail." The new law would not allow grocery stores to host tasting events, and Osborn said that Fox Run will continue to hold regular tasting events in liquor stores. "They provide a great service to customers, and it's in all our of interests to see that continue."
There is a difference, however, between pressure and illegal coercion, and some winery owners are wondering if the Attorney General's office will investigate the behavior of some liquor stores. That's because Doug Miles, owner of Miles Wine Cellars on Seneca Lake, released an email he received last week from a liquor store owner in the Rochester area. It came from Jim Lepore, owner of Chili Liquor in Chili, NY. After Miles testified in Albany in favor of selling wine in grocery stores, Lepore wrote to Miles
The liquor store association is going to list on their Web site all the wineries that are on our side. I feel sorry for those that are not. Most stores are not going to support those not on our list.
"I took that as a very clear threat," Miles told me today. "And the threat has already materialized. We work with 77 liquor stores in this state. Several have already called me to tell me they are pulling my wine off their shelves. Others are declining to order more. I've even gotten calls from liquor store owners who never carried my wine, and they call to warn me to change my position or they'll never carry it in the future."
I spoke to Lepore today, who said the email was a big misunderstanding. "It was absolutely not a threat," Lepore said, explaining that the disputed part of the email was just a small part of a long back-and-forth with Miles. "I still carry his wine. I will continue to carry his wine. The reason I wrote what I wrote was because I wanted to help him, as a small business owner, see what might happen in other stores. But that doesn't mean I want people to boycott his business."
Lepore said that since his email to Miles was released to the public, liquor stores owners from across the state have been calling. "I tell them to carry what sells," Lepore said. "You have to take care of your customers first. But I can't control what other store owners do, because we're all independent. Are they going to drop Miles? Some will. Are they going to carry new Miles wine? Some of them won't. But I don't think anyone is coercing anyone. You have the right to carry what you want to carry. I'll carry Miles and 400 other New York wines because that's what sells and that's what I believe in."
Miles told me he's already heard from customers who can't find his wines where they are normally carried. "We want customers to call us or email us directly if they can't find our wines anymore, and we'll ship directly to them. We'll provide free shipping. We want people to have access to our wines."
Miles said that if liquor stores coordinate a boycott, "They could hurt wineries very badly. I don't deny that. But I'm just surprised at this reaction. I don't want to hurt liquor stores. I think liquor stores deserve more rights to sell other products if grocery stores get wine. I strongly support liquor stores in getting more opportunities to sell."
But Jim McKenzie of the New York Liquor Stores Association told me that's not what liquor stores want. "We want the system kept the same," he said. "We're going to lose a thousand liquor stores if this goes through. We don't want to negotiate for other things." McKenzie also denied that there is a coordinated effort to boycott New York wineries that don't support his side. "We don't want to make enemies with anyone. There might be an owner here and there who decides to pull certain products, but that's uncontrollable. There might be store owners who feel like they're getting screwed, for lack of better term, and maybe they don't know how to respond. But we are certainly not encouraging (a boycott)."
At risk are not just the liquor stores, McKenzie says, but small wineries likes Miles.
"Small wineries grow by eventually getting their products in liquor stores. Their wines are sold by knowledgeable people who specialize in wine. Customers hear their stories and learn about who they are and what they do. If grocery stores get wine, small wineries will suffer."
Miles appreciates the sentiment, but he points out that only 3% of liquor stores in the state carry his wines, and of those 77 stores, "Maybe about a dozen are actively selling our wines. We appreciate it so much. Our relationships with liquor stores is important. But it's still a very, very small number of liquor stores that are showing interest in small wineries like us."
And yet most smaller Finger Lakes wineries are either neutral or in support of the liquor stores. Bob Madill of Sheldrake Point thinks liquor stores need to prepare for the bill's passage. "I'm very concerned about liquor stores closing," he said. "But 35 states sell wine in grocery stores. I think it's going to happen here. And if it's going to happen, we need to work with stores to make sure we're preserving jobs and maintaining the outstanding work that they do for customers. We can't be making enemies — this is an important time to work together."
Note: We know that this is only a part of the governor's proposal, this isn't meant to be a comprehensive story.