Liqour selections

Liquor store giant Total Wine enters the fray on Issue 3

This voting question would, among other things, loosen those caps somewhat, increasing the number of locations under a single business owner who can sell beer and wine from 9 to 18 over a decade. . However, it would also reduce the number of jointly owned locations that can sell hard liquor from nine to seven.

It’s a compromise attempt, proposed by the Massachusetts Package Stores Association to fend off a ballot question that MassPack anticipated from food retailers such as convenience chain Cumberland Farms that would allow for even more expansive sales. Several food retailers had formed a voting committee to oppose Question 3 but that committee ultimately chose not to raise or spend any money, and the grocery stores never submitted their own ballot question this time around.

Still, MassPack executive director Rob Mellion feared a major retail chain would enter the fray ahead of the statewide vote in November.

He was right. This retailer turned out to be Total Wine. The Maryland-based company, which has seven stores in Massachusetts and nearly 230 nationwide, launched TV ads and mailings last week calling Question 3 bad for consumers, supposedly promoting businesses that sell at higher prices and have less extensive selections. Total Wine finances this campaign directly with its own funds. Its $2.1 million spending reported this month is by far the highest spending a single company has spent directly influencing a Massachusetts ballot issue, instead of working through a a committee over the past decade.

Glassware, accessories and wines on display at the Total Wine & More store in Everett.John Blanding

Total Wine Vice President Edward Cooper said his company entered the fray in part because Question 3 proponents were trying to stifle competition.

“Let’s call it what it is, protectionism,” Cooper said in an email. “So much for the free market to be alive and well in Massachusetts.”

Cooper said Total Wine saw no need to “hide behind” a committee.

“We have chosen to fight alone against this unfair and bad ballot measure for Massachusetts consumers,” Cooper added.

Total Wine’s TV ad calls Question 3 a “secret deal” that hurts consumers by doubling licenses for “some high-priced channels.” (There’s no indication that Question 3 is a “secret affair,” as the ad claims, and most MassPack members only own one or a few liquor stores.)

If voters approve Question 3, it may be more difficult to pressure the Legislative Assembly to expand liquor outlets further in the future. And if Cumby’s or another major retailer tries to do so with another ballot question, MassPack could sue, arguing that six years must pass before voters are asked to vote on a ballot question. which is essentially the same. Cumby’s, a Westborough-based chain now owned by a British conglomerate, had started asking a question on the ballot in 2019 that would lift the cap on the number of liquor licenses a food retailer could have, but those efforts fizzled out at first. days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Total Wine’s television commercial features a sign reading question 3 “reduces liquor licenses for family businesses”, a reference to the proposed reduction in the cap for locations that sell hard liquor. Yes, Total Wine, owned by two brothers, David and Robert Trone, is a family business. However, it describes itself as “the nation’s largest independent wine, beer and spirits retailer.”

Wine displayed at the Total Wine & More store in Everett.John Blanding

“It’s obviously infuriating that a company with over 200 supermarkets in 27 states would call themselves a small business when they’re the ones trying to weed out small business,” Mellion said. “We are fighting an opposition group with unlimited resources.”

The Question 3 battle, Mellion said, is shaping up to be a David vs. Goliath fight. Its members are fighting for survival, he added, while Total Wine “is only fighting for more money, more market share”. Total Wine, he said, can put its members out of business by lowering prices, through bulk purchases. His committee has raised more than $500,000 for the battle this year, about a quarter of Total Wine’s spending here earlier this month. Total Wine is also spending millions on a ballot issue in Colorado that would expand liquor outlets there.

Cumberland Farms lead attorney Matthew Durand said the retailers’ voting committee, Food Stores for Consumer Choice, decided to remain neutral in this fight. His company, he said, is more interested in returning to the Legislature next year to seek changes to how retail liquor licenses are capped by the municipality.

“Total Wine is a big player and they obviously care,” Durand said. “In a way, I’m not surprised that they’re weighing in on this. But it was not coordinated by us or by any of our committees.

Even if Total Wine goes it alone, MassPack faces a formidable enemy.

Mellion likes to say that every time Total Wine shows up, independent stores nearby go bust. Another thing happens when Total Wine shows up: their group’s campaign for Question 3 becomes much harder to win.

Jon Chesto can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.