By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Correspondent
I do not intend to make a cabernet out of a concord here, but this is ridiculous. And it's a microcosm of the dysfunction that has rotted this state for years.
The owner of one of western New York's largest wine and liquor stores may be fined $10,000 by the New York State Liquor Authority because he had the audacity to sell wine gift bags to his customers who were buying, you know, wine.
Here's the short version: The law is written to enumerate the various things that a wine or liquor store is permitted to sell. Like most stores, Marketview Liquor in Henrietta, NY sells wine, wine glasses, wine stoppers, and corkscrews. That's all just fine. But because the law does not specifically say that such stores can sell wine gift bags, the sale of such decorative bags must be punished. It does not matter if the law inconveniences customers who had hoped to do their holiday wine shopping in one location -- they can go to the grocery store if they want a gift bag.
What's the reason for this? I spoke to several NY state senators today who told me that the law was written long before stores were selling gift bags. Now, according to Senator Joe Robach (R-Rochester), the SLA is getting too aggressive in going after the vicious offenders of the gift bag rule. Robach would like to see the Authority issue warnings while reconsidering the law's merits or, as the case may be, demerits.
But several state lawmakers asked me not to use their name when they explained that they believe this whole thing is about liquor stores vs. grocery stores. They said that lawmakers knew they had upset grocery stores by preventing wine sales on their premises, so they disallowed the sale of some wine accessories in liquor stores (wine-themed magnets is another. Seriously.)
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line: no one seemed to think the SLA would enforce these rules, but the state needs cash. And here's what burns Mike Palmeri, who owns Marketview Liquor: According to documents he showed me today, the SLA sent inspectors in to his store back in June. Mike had no idea (and also says he had no idea he was not permitted to sell wine gift bags). But instead of informing Mike that he was being investigated, they kept the case quiet, allowing Palmeri to place an order of $25,000 worth of gift bags, most of which he expected to sell around Christmas. The SLA whacked him the first week of December -- so he's out the fine and his inventory costs.
"I guess I should have known the law," he told me. "I guess I should not have assumed I could sell these little gift bags for a buck or two apiece. It's my responsibility to know that. But now I'm going to do everything I can to get this law changed."
I asked Michael Smith of the SLA to help me understand why the law prohibits selling wine gift bags in wine stores, and he replied that it's up to SLA to enforce the laws -- any other questions should go to the legislature.
In other words, it might make not a shred of sense, but the state is coming after your store if you dare to sell pretty little wine gift bags. Just because a law is bad for customers and for business does not mean it's bad for lawmakers.