By Jason Feulner, Finger Lakes Correspondent
New York's agricultural commissioner can learn something from Danny Wegman when it comes to being direct about an issue.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Wegman was willing to be honest about what will happen if New York grocery stores are permitted to sell wine: He'll make more money and some liquor stores will close.
"Some liquor store operators say they will lose their jobs. I'm sure that's true, if they don't do a good job,” Wegman said as reported by 13 WHAM-TV in Rochester. He said that hundreds of the state’s liquor stores have already gone out of business. “I think they'll go out anyway. That's what I'm saying, because it's a competitive business even with the laws the way they are.”
And then he said this about his desire to make more money: "New York State is not growing, so any opportunity for growth helps Wegmans as a business.”
His honesty was refreshing, especially when compared to New York's ag commissioner who was in Syracuse on Monday touting a new government campaign to bring wine into grocery stores. The official name of the campaign is "Convenience is Choice: Bring Home the Wine." The official line is that New York produces nearly 200 million bottles of wine but that it can only be sold in roughly 2,500 retail outlets. By selling wine in grocery stores, the government claims, the local wine industry will grow by 20 percent.
As someone who has analyzed policy and proposals, I keep waiting for more data to support that 20 percent claim.
We all know what the government is after: more tax revenue. And to their credit, government leaders have acknowledged that this plan would attract millions of dollars. But every time they seem to gravitate toward an honest explanation -- short-term tax revenues -- they fall back to a position of support for the New York wine industry that rings a bit hollow.
Why is that? Well, the superficial market analysis put forth by the state is so blissfully ignorant of anything approaching price points, consumer choice and distribution realities that it's not even worth de-constructing. Every conversation about the impact on New York state wine ought to include these points, but instead we get platitudes that come off as half-hearted.
Needless to say, we all know that the issue is extremely complex because wine marketing and consumption is a complex business.
Albany's appeal to support New York wines plays as a PR move because we continue to wait for the substance to back up their claims. And if the prime motive is taxation, is it possible that industry growth is also a motivation?
The track record is not good.
New York state justifies tax increases by claiming an expertise in industrial development when there is overwhelming evidence that the state is extremely destructive of native industries. No one wants to see deleterious effects on the New York wine industry, but it's hard to evaluate the potential future results when the state is focused so strongly on a short-term budget solution.
The executive branch spends our tax dollars to promote these proposals. We don't have current figures for how much they've spent on the PR push for this issue, but it's not free.
And yet despite all this banter there could very well be a long-term benefit to New York wineries by allowing grocery store sales. We simply can't accurately assess that claim because the state has offered nothing more than the same spin that follows many other short-term revenue boosting proposals.
If there is an answer to that question, it probably lies in a real survey among wineries and distributors, a task that the state has not bothered to approach.
Wine may or may not belong in New York grocery stores. Thanks to Albany, analysis of real outcomes has taken a back seat to politics as usual.
Editor's Note: In addition to being a wine lover, Jason earned a Master's Degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and has worked in economic development and in policy analysis for political campaigns.