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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Your grocer will sell beer & wine soon

Wine lovers and beer guzzlers can now pick up their weekend stock from a shopping mall nearby or a grocery store across the road. The state government has freed wine and light beer from the clutches of ‘liquor stores’ and bars.

A few weeks ago, the state excise ministry quietly cleared a proposal that allows retailers to sell wine and mild beer. The proposal, subsequently approved by state excise minister Ganesh Naik, has, however, created a new licensing system called SLBR 2 for non-liquor stores. The licence, to be renewed yearly, will be issued for what’s being called ‘soft’ liquor.

The district collector is the licencing authority for this category unlike the earlier system where the state excise department had the sole right to issue a liquor licence. “Any shop can now apply for a licence to the collector and store or/and sale beer and wine,” a senior state government official told ET. Along with retail shops, malls or grocery stores, eating joints can also serve wine even if they don’t possess a restaurant or hotel licence, a source said.

According to officials from the state excise ministry, this is possibly the precursor to exclusive wine bars which are prevalent in other countries. The Maharashtra government is carefully building political consensus on the tricky issue. Similar to pubs, the proposed wine bars would confine to offering locally made wine and snacks.

However, political watchers, think more than the decision, the timing is significant. It comes when the Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s home town Baramati is all geared up for beer baron Vijay Mallya’s first winery. As reported by ET on January 11, Mr Malya has joined hands with the Pawar family to set up what is being touted as the biggest winery in India. Prataprao Pawar, the elder brother of the Maratha strongman, is likely to be on the board of Four Season’s Winery in which Mr Mallya’s United Brewery will hold a 51% stake.

The proposed plant is being planned as a chateau winery in the midst of a 330-acre vineyard that will have a five million-litre capacity (7 million bottles) and is expected to attract investments of over Rs 70 crore. Four Seasons is hoping to hit the market with its first premium offering later this year.

“You can call it a mere coincidence,” a state excise official quipped when asked about the timing of the government’s decision. Mr Pawar, for quite some time, has been advocating freeing of wines from the restrictions that apply to hard liquor. His pro-active support last year saw the state government coming out with a wine policy that showered a slew of sops to wineries. Not to mention the fact that Pawar family produces nearly 6,000 tonnes of grapes every year.

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