Beer Distributors Win Senate Panel's Support For Sale Of Wine Coolers

Posted: June 18, 1986

HARRISBURG — Despite opposition from state liquor control officials, Pennsylvania beer distributors won a preliminary round yesterday in their fight to tap the fast-growing market in wine coolers.

By a 6-3 vote, the Senate Law and Justice Committee voted to approve legislation to give distributors the authority to sell wine coolers. Wine coolers are now sold only in State Stores.

Wine coolers are a mixture of wine and fruit juices. Heavily promoted by their manufacturers, they have become the fastest growing part of the beverage market, a spokesman for the beer distributors said. The Liquor Control Board (LCB), which operates the State Stores, grossed $9 million on the sale of 330,000 cases of wine coolers in the last year.

LCB spokesman Robert Ford said the agency estimates that wine cooler sales will double in the next year. The Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association, which favors the legislation, estimated that 2.5 million cases a year could be sold if beer distributors were allowed to sell wine coolers.

"The beer distributors are very hungry for wine coolers. Now, with summer coming on, is the time when people buy them," said Rep. Brian Clark (D., Allegheny), a member of the House Liquor Control Committee.

Clark said he expected that there would be an effort in the House to pass wine cooler legislation before the legislature recesses next month for the summer.

The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. John Shumaker (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Law and Justice Committee, said he hoped the Senate could pass the bill before summer.

The legislation is opposed by the LCB, the State Store managers union, and state grocery operators, who want the bill expanded to permit them to sell coolers too.

Shumaker said he did not view the bill as a special interest measure designed to help the beer distributors.

"I see it as helping the consumers," he said.

One of the major areas of complaint about the State Store system has been the lack of variety among the selections offered.

The legislation also would permit the State Stores to sell malt-based coolers. Under current law, only beer distributors can sell malt coolers. However, letting the LCB sell malt coolers is not expected to add much to the liquor agencies revenues.

The distributors have been trying to get legislation permitting them to sell wine coolers for more than a year. Last year, they succeeded in having their wine cooler provision inserted into a bill that would have reauthorized the LCB, but the bill was caught in the ongoing fight between Gov. Thornburgh and the legislature over Thornburgh's campaign to abolish the LCB, and went nowhere.

Ford said that the LCB opposed permitting beer distributors to sell wine coolers because it would violate a longstanding policy that only State Stores sell wine products. He said that ending the state monopoly in wine coolers would also hurt LCB revenues.

"I don't think that's true," Shumaker said, when asked about the potential revenue loss. "By giving it to distributors, I think you'll bring in new people who wouldn't go into a liquor store for whatever reason."

John V. Kulik, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which has been campaigning unsuccessfuly to get wine sales in grocery stores, said grocers believed they should be allowed to sell wine coolers if the authority is extended to beer distributors.

"This is obviously a shift of a very lucrative product right now to a narrow range of business, that is, the beer distributors," Kulik said.

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