As spring trips go, this one wasn’t meant to be luxurious. Our mission was simple: Fly to Seattle for a five-day visit, help celebrate our grandson’s fourth birthday, enjoy some fresh seafood and scenery, and perhaps along the way observe how one of America’s fastest-growing major cities is dealing with progress.

We got all of that last week, plus an added bonus. You never expect to spend that much time in the Great Northwest without seeing a single raindrop, but this time we did.

On the down side, we discovered firsthand the multifaceted nightmare that is Seattle traffic. Granted, having so much water does limit the possibilities for freeways. But the Emerald City obviously waited too long to address its worsening problem, and now the mixture of a few train routes and limited light rail doesn’t come close to a solution. Having plentiful bus service isn’t much help, either, with the main thoroughfares so clogged.

Several times, we lost 30-45 minutes just trying to navigate short distances driving through busy areas. It was the same fate with Uber drivers, who had local knowledge and technology for guidance but still fought losing battles, even away from rush hours.

But traffic wasn’t the No. 1 negative surprise. That came simply looking for a nice neighborhood liquor store, where I planned to check out the abundant local craft-beer selection, as well as some good Washington state wines.

We didn’t see any such stores driving around the trendy areas in north Seattle, near where we were staying. I checked online and still had no luck. In a section with at least 50,000 inhabitants (Seattle’s metro area has 3.6 million people), there only appeared to be a couple of specialty wine stores of any size, nowhere near us.

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Conversations with area residents quickly produced the answer. For generations after Prohibition, Seattle and Washington had only state-owned liquor stores. That changed in 2011, when Costco (headquartered in the Seattle area) pumped $18 million into a campaign for a ballot issue to allow alcohol sales in private businesses. Ballot issue 1183 passed, and everyone was led to believe it would mean utopia for consumers.

Sound familiar? Coloradans are hearing the same message now as big-business entities push for a state-level ballot question in November allowing wine and full-strength beer to be sold in supermarkets and other food stores.

It’ll be great, the supporters say. It’ll be terrible, the opponents insist.

I would be the first to admit, visiting states such as Florida and Texas as a tourist, it’s nice being able to find regular beer and wine in a supermarket.

But this trip to Seattle brought a different discovery. We went to a large Albertsons, expecting to see a large selection. Instead, we encountered national and import brands but hardly any local beers, and for wine, the lower-price products were abundant but the choices for upscale options almost nonexistent.

So it went in other stores, even the size of Sam’s Club. The prices were decent for famous brands of beer and wine, and acceptable for hard liquor — though the taxes were much higher than in Colorado. And you could find booze in any Seattle convenience store, but again with just a limited supply of national beers and a smattering of wines.

As customers wanting to consider local Seattle-area beers and higher-quality Washington wines, we hit the wall. All I could think of was the many well-run, first-rate, superbly stocked liquor stores in Colorado Springs, just in the central and Westside areas. Places like Queen Liquor, Weber Street Liquor, Coaltrain, Downtown Fine Spirits and Wines, Plaza 21, Steins & Vines, Red Rock Liquors — and that doesn’t even count others such as Cheers Liquor Mart and more out east.

Any stranger in our region doesn’t have to look far to find a classy store. Yet, in a mega-city as progressive and supposedly cool as Seattle, it’s a different story.

Definitely, the circumstances are not exactly the same in Colorado and Washington. But just based on that experience, I can’t help but conclude that if good neighborhood liquor stores and multiple outlets for local craft brews can’t make it in Seattle competing against open alcohol sales in supermarkets and food stores, they wouldn’t survive in Colorado either.

The campaign known as Your Choice Colorado talks a good game. But that doesn’t make it the best choice for Colorado consumers and more than 1,600 privately owned small businesses across the state already selling full-strength beer, wine and liquor.

If you want craft beer instead of Coors, Miller or Bud, and a full range of wine choices depending on the occasion, believe me, you’d much rather be shopping here than in Seattle. No kidding.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Ralph! Thanks so much for the “shout out” and for your support.

    Sincerely,

    Kit Abrams/Queen Liquor

  2. Right on target Ralph. The proposal will largely destroy the liquor store industry and access to crafts and Colorado wines and spirits. Anyone who has ever tried selling to a supermarket knows the first challenge is getting through the door (good luck). Then the response is “sorry you can’t provide the volume needed. Sometimes protectionism makes sense and this is one of those times.

  3. Greetings from Seattle. I think you are probably on to something about the bait-and-switch aspect of changing state liquor laws, but you really did go to the wrong stores while visiting Seattle. Which is understandable, since you were just visiting.

    First off, Albertsons is the Chevy Cavalier of grocery stores out here. You should have been looking at Metropolitan Market or even QFC if you wanted a store with an actual wine/spirits buyer. Or a neighborhood place that specialized in local & more upscale products (these businesses are not often found in the cultural wasteland that is N Seattle) The microbrew selection at Safeway – which is a medium step up from Albertsons – is usually very good, but it depends on the neighborhood.

    Nobody sets foot in the one or two Sams Clubs around here, because Costco has completely dominated the market for both huge pallets of Coors light AND small batch everything. And, indeed, Costco is one of the few places where the bottles of beer, wine and booze didn’t go through the roof after our switch from a state-run system to a private system. Every other place, we saw a 20-30% spike in prices for liquor. The flip side of Costco going upscale is probably that we don’t have many of the small stores you reference. Along with Amazon, they tend to suck all the air out of every room.

    In short, we got the convenience, but we paid a big $ price for it for sure. And we may have also quelled the development of smaller craft stores. And God only knows what black hole in the state budget all those liquor tax revenues got sucked into.

    Good luck out there, and may you learn from our mistakes!

  4. As a Seattle resident transplanted from the Springs in 2013, I’m sorry you were looking for national craft beer brands here. We do have regional brewers and we support them. I’m not a beer drinker (except on hot days when PBR is my fav), but I did notice an upscale local supermarket chain devotes about 40ft of linear wall space to an open cooler to many craft beers as well as my fav PBR and other national brands. My closest supermarket has an extensive wine collection and an associate who devotes her time only to that department. She has special-ordered wine for me from a regional winery. Delicious!
    Seattle enjoys hosting the Costco store and their HQ is nearby. Walmart has not been allowed into Seattle (population approx = El Paso County).
    I would need to Google to find an Albertson in Seattle. We have a fair number of Safeway and QFC, a Kroger business line.
    Seattle does enjoy supporting local businesses including Starbucks and Amazon. Actually Starbucks offers just another coffee outlet and locals who want to enjoy visiting with friends avoid the Starbucks stores because they have a reputation for a loud music background.
    I violently agree with your comments about the traffic. I happen to live on the city’s fringe and avoid driving in commuting corridors during peak periods. Working hard to be an effective retiree, I can avoid the issue. Other issues related to a high-growth urban area are not easily avoided.

  5. What about encouraging legislation prohibiting warehouse department stores from selling groceries? Or a law limiting auto dealerships to just one brand of vehicle? Smaller government might exist when we begin cutting back on government!

  6. I HAVE THE FOLLOWING TO ADD:

    THE IMPACT WILL NOT ONLY BE FELT ON THE NUMBER OF LIQUOR STORES (ARIZONA HAD 70% CLOSING WITHIN 5 YEARS). THE REAL GAME CHANGER IS THIS:
    1. less access for small breweries, wineries and distillers will lead to less choice for consumers and will destroy this thriving sector of our economy.
    2. all profits in big chains will leave the state instead of benefiting the local economy
    3. lots of empty real estate with up to 70% of liquor stores closing
    4. easier access to cheap alcohol in 7-elevens (think about downtown colorado springs and easier access to cheap malt liquor in 7-eleven)
    5. jobs will be lost in liquor stores, distributors of alcohol and the many little breweries, wineries and distilleries. Only a few jobs will be added in Supermarkets which will lead to a net job loss.
    6. prices will first drop, but experience in other states have shown that a few years later prices are higher then in the beginning with much less choice. Big win for big business..

    Just read this study by summit econmoics of just beer in Supermarkets a few years ago.

    http://myclba.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Economic_Impact_Report_Final-1.pdf

  7. Hmmm… I am a recent transplant from Seattle to Colorado Springs. Seattle has a ton of specialty grocers and liquor stores but you apparently didn’t find them… “North Seattle” is not actually Seattle, it’s a distant suburb without any real town center. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find specialty cheeses, meats, or organic/locally grown foods in Albertson’s, Safeway, or Costco, you won’t find specialty beer and wine in these stores. You have to go to good grocers to find good beer and wine. Also, of note, Washington has allowed wine and beer sales in grocery stores for as long as I’ve been alive, and the move to selling hard liquor in grocers was recent- that’s not on the ballot here in CO- the specialty liquor stores will continue to provide this exclusively.
    Seattle has a wealth of options, but as an outsider spending five days there you clearly didn’t begin to find them. It took me a month to find a decent liquor store in COS, and to be honest it’s a pain to have to go to a separate store just to get a bottle of wine to pair with dinner after grocery shopping. I support beer and wine in grocery stores. The selection won’t be as superb as the selection at Coaltrain, but we can all still go to Coaltrain when we want something good!
    And, on the traffic issue- Seattle is a city of 650,000 people living in less than 85 square miles (with many more people commuting into the city daily) vs Colorado Springs 450,000 in 194 square miles. Personally I would trade a vibrant and dense city with some traffic (walk or ride your freaking bike) over massive sprawl any day. No one loves Seattle traffic, but Colorado Springs has a pathetic and almost non-existent public transport system, terribly aggressive drivers who don’t respect cyclist’s right to ride, and is the only “city” I’ve ever been in that hasn’t updated its traffic lights with traffic sensors, so despite the lack of cars on the road downtown we all sit at stop lights FOREVER! Sorry you weren’t impressed with Seattle, but take a look at your own city!

  8. I lived in Florida before coming to Colorado. Florida started allowing beer & wine sales in grocery stores and 90% of all the local liquor stores disappeared. The only liquor stores you could find were Walgreens Liquors (like Walgreens needs the business) and mega-liquor stores like Total Wine. A few of the grocery stores would have an okay selection, but not many. I really hope this doesn’t happen here.

  9. 16y Seattle resident here. Our best local beers are available on tap in any of our fine local taverns. Remember: Seattle is urban, which is to say it has different values, methods, and expectations than a city that’s more suburban or sprawly in nature. Seattleites are in the habit of taking their beers in pubs where the selection is broad, the advice is good, and social remains in play (unlike at home with a bottle in front of the TV). Growler culture is highly developed here as well, which allows beer aficionados to bring craft beers home from their local taverns 4l. (or more) at a time.

    Respectfully, the author didn’t get enough good advice before coming to Seattle and honestly didn’t look hard enough for local beer & wine emporia. Author, next time you’re coming to Seattle shoot me an email and I’ll happily help disabuse you of your misconceptions (especially if we’re bar crawling on CSBJ’s tab).

  10. Seattleite here… you’re a liar or an idiot, take your pick. Every grocery store and liquor/wine store has tons of local microbrews.

  11. How did you miss out on Chuck’s Hop Shop, Bottleworks, The Beer Junction, Full Throttle Bottles, The Last Drop Bottle Shop, Malt and Vine, Thirsty Hop, Beer Authority, I could go on. Took me one second to Google Seattle bottle shops.

  12. This article seems to be making a couple critical errors, foremost of which is that it was legal to purchase beer and wine from grocery stores (and bottleshops, gas stations, etc.) prior to the passing of 1183. 1183 was only concerned with the privatization of distilled spirit sales (and the associated tax structure). While the state-owned liquor stores sold wine and beer, the selection there was no better than an average gas station.

    Wine and beer selection has improved over the last few years in Seattle, with several specialty stores opening and most groceries expanding their selection significantly (especially up-market grocery stores. Try Met Market, QFC, Whole Foods, etc. for better selection, or just go to a specialty store. Bottleworks, Chuck’s on 85th, The Beer Junction, and City Cellars are all good choices). 1183 had a negligible effect on the beer/wine market, because it wasn’t concerned with those drinks.

    Don’t confuse our beer/wine market with the changes enacted by 1183. You’ve been able to buy beer and wine outside of the state-run system for well over half a century.

    Whether or not privatizing your beer/wine sales is a good idea I cannot comment on, as I’m not familiar enough with Colorado’s liquor laws.

  13. Colorado native, Seattle resident here.

    Next time I head to Denver on a fact-finding mission, I’ll go to Commerce City. That’s effectively what you did here.

    The Denver beer scene is way better than Seattle’s, but you looked with your eyes closed.

    You’re right about the traffic though. It blows, and no amount of roads will fix it.

  14. I couldn’t care less about Colorado’s new initiative, but this guy literally visited two stores that are practically in the same parking lot of one of the worst food deserts and rundown sections of the city. If only to save face amongst the beer community, this guy doesn’t have a clue about Seattle beer and its availability within the city. Also note, beer (of any %) and wine have always been available at supermarkets here, pre- and post- law. So if he truly wasn’t able to find beer or wine in these places now, it would’ve been the same 5 years ago. The only thing that changed was the availability of hard alcohol in these types of stores. But yeah, our traffic sucks.

  15. There are 9 microbreweries within about a half mile of my house in North Seattle, and a specialty beer store a mile north (Chuck’s Hop Shop). The shell station on my corner does growler fills and has a very respectable selection of PNW microbrews, as does the local semi-independent grocery store (Ballard Market).

    Maybe you were in Lake City or something? Unclear. Anyways, Seattle if anything has way too many microbreweries (in economic terms – in beer terms more is just better). The lack of specialty beer/wine stores is a holdover from the blue-law days when Washington mandated all liquor be sold at state-run stores, not a result of competition from grocery stores. Can’t argue on the traffic though – it’s terrible. But it’s also a walkable city where many residents don’t need to own or commute by car, unlike (for example) the sprawl that is Colorado Springs.

  16. Geez- You didn’t even TRY (liquor stores notwithstanding). Have you heard of Yelp? Maybe check out one of the local weekly newspapers like “Seattle Weekly” or “The Stranger”? These would’ve yielded MANY options for store-bought micro brews. There are literally DOZENS of options in North Seattle, let alone the route(s0 you took getting there. And while traffic in Seattle is definitely crappy, the options for beer are definitely NOT. Weak!

  17. Sounds like a clueless journalist who doesn’t know how to Yelp your nearest QFC which is all over the Seattle region and is packing plenty of craft alcohol. Learn how to use the Internet.

  18. One other wrinkle in the privatization of spirits in WA is that they cannot be sold in stores less than 15000 sq ft… Larger than some of our Trader Joes. We will never have the well stocked neighborhood liquor stores that you apparently have. I would happily trade that for the ability to get wine and liquor at a grocery store though.

  19. I haven’t lived in Seattle for long but had no trouble finding microbrew beer and local wine immediately. This article is suspicious, it seems that the author went out of his way to avoid successfully finding what he claims to have been looking for. I suspect this was intentional to mislead people in Colorado and foster support for his side of a divisive issue.

    Take this article with a grain of salt.

  20. The author went looking for exactly what they wanted to find. The argument is against retail in grocery stores, saying that they quash competition and availability from smaller neighborhood retail establishments.

    The problem Seattle residents have with this article is that the authors sample is not representative of Seattle. Having lived in both WA and CO, this author effectively went looking for a creative, thriving local craft beverage scene in the Seattle equivalent of Commerce City.

    But since that’s the picture this article is intended to paint, the author is happy with the misrepresentation of Seattle’s local beverage culture.

  21. Your summary of the availability of good beer and wine in Seattle is laughable. But, I love articles like these. Maybe it will actually keep a few people from moving to Seattle.

    As someone who recently seriously considered relocating to CO Springs for work and has visited multiple times, you keep your beer selection, we’ll keep ours. We’ll trade you Elysian for Trinity, though.

  22. Ive lived in Seattle my whole life and can whole heartily attest to the fact finding micro brews and local anything is IMMENSELY EASY! I havn’t consumed any national brand of beer since I was in high school more than a decade ago… Let’s get real here.. This article is completely bogus and obviously politically motivated for the state’s side.

    Don’t let your local media fool you…

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