Maryland-based Total Wine & More’s proposal to open a store in the borough of Queens was unanimously rejected by the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) last week. Originally filed under the name of MCT New York Fine Wine & Spirits last summer, the application ignited a growing firestorm of opposition, sparking more than 350 letters from retailers, sales representatives, and business organizations as well as 38 letters from politicians—including 14 from state legislators who had previously supported the proposal.
The SLA’s unanimous decision came at its regular board meeting in Albany Wednesday, June 10. “We thank the SLA for recognizing the fact that College Point in Queens is very well served by 350 existing liquor stores in that area and does not need a 30,000-square-foot mega-liquor store,” said Michael Correra, executive director of the Metropolitan Package Store Association and owner of Michael Towne Wines and Spirits in Brooklyn Heights.
Liquor store owners have expressed concerns about losing business if Total Wine is granted a license. Under the New York law, the issuance of new liquor licenses “shall be made with public convenience and advantage” and support “economic growth, job development and the state’s alcoholic beverage production industries.”
The hearing on the proposed Queens store faced numerous delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a significant backlog. The SLA was originally scheduled to rule on the application at its May 27 meeting, but Total Wine requested extra time to rebut to some information opposing the proposal. Due to the pandemic, there were no oral arguments, witnesses, or members of the public at the SLA’s regular meeting. All comments on the application were submitted in writing.
While the SLA approved a retail liquor license in 2016 for a Total Wine store in Long Island’s Nassau County, Wednesday’s decision became the third separate proposal from the retail giant rejected in New York since 2017. In December 2018, the SLA denied Total Wine a license to open a store in Hartsdale, 30 miles north of Manhattan. The SLA also rejected an application from the retailer in 2017 to open a 25,700-square-foot store in Stony Brook in Suffolk County on Long Island.
Robert Trone and his brother David Trone, a U.S. congressman representing Maryland, founded Total Wine in 1991, and the retail giant now encompasses 207 superstores across 24 states. Under New York law, an individual or entity can’t own more than one liquor license in the state. David received the 2016 license for Total Wine, Spirits & More Westbury, and that Long Island unit has seen success. The 26,000-square-foot location has roughly 125 employees and annual sales of more than $60 million. It carries approximately 5,000 spirits and 9,000 wine SKUs, including 900 from New York.
It was based on the success of Westbury Fine Wines that Robert Trone applied for retail liquor licenses in Stony Brook and Hartsdale. Last August, under the name of MCT Fine Wines and Spirits, Michelle Trone, David’s daughter, applied to open the proposed store in College Point, Queens, New York. It remains to be seen if Total Wine challenges the SLA’s latest ruling.
Total Wine did challenge the SLA’s ruling on the Hartsdale store. Citing the large number of wine and spirits stores in the area, the New York Supreme Court’s ruling in September 2019 upheld the SLA’s decision denying Total Wine a retail license. Total Wine appealed that decision, claiming it was based upon anti-competitive protectionism, political opposition, and the applicant’s non-resident status. The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division heard arguments on May 19, and a pending and heavily anticipated ruling hangs in the balance.