Stephen Foley: Spirit of Prohibition deprives New Yorkers of competition

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The Independent Online

US Outlook: Just what does it take to get a drink around here? As an Englishman in New York, you never quite get used to the puritan attitude to alcohol, whether it is finding, aged 20, that you still can't drink on this side of the Atlantic, or finding, 10 years later at your first Wall Street lunch, that your American companion regards the suggestion of ordering a bottle of wine as grounds for an intervention.

It is the echoes of Prohibition in the sale of alcohol that frustrate more than anything. In the race towards the end of the legislative session in the New York state assembly this week, amidst the will-they, won't-they drama on gay marriage and a property tax showdown, I had hopes for a little bill that would finally permit the sale of wine in grocery stores here. Sadly, it seems we will have to wait till next year for this one.

Currently, the sale of bottles of wine is strictly limited to liquor stores, with their quixotic opening hours, and no one is allowed to own more than one store, making for zero economies of scale and sky-high prices. (Just as frustratingly, liquor stores can't sell anything but alcohol, not even tonic for your gin, or a packet of wine gums).

Proponents of liberalisation are waging a spirited campaign on behalf of the grape, and as befits the concerns of the hour, they are basing their arguments on the economy. Allowing the local supermarket to sell wine, they say, will create jobs and help balance the state budget.

Research published in support of their claims turned up some interesting facts. New York has just 1.4 wine outlets per 10,000 adults of drinking age, compared to more than 10 in some neighbouring states. Upstate, there are more than 600 towns that do not have a single liquor store.

I am not certain all the lobbyists' claims pass the sniff test, particularly that liberalisation will create 7,600 jobs in New York. Will grocery stores really endure such a crush of oenophiles that they have to put on new staff? And what of the vineyards of Long Island? Surely the sippers of New York have the good taste to look to California, or further.

The one-off $350m (£218m) in revenue from the sale of new liquor licences would have been just a drop in the barrel of New York's $10bn budget deficit. Still, as my much-missed local grocer in the UK says, every little helps.

And there is justification enough in supporting competition, improving choice and making the balkanised New York shopping experience more convenient. Give me a chance and I'll drink to all of that.

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