It's a call to arms, and you're all not just invited, but needed.
One thing that struck me about the Palate Press debate was its civility, but maybe that's because most of us know each other, and we broadly agree about much more than not. If you're a wine blogger or a wine blog reader, almost by definition you support the following:
* Small producers
* Unheralded regions
* Idiosyncratic wines of quality and terroir
There's a tendency in these ever-popular 100-point debates to blame critics' ratings for hurting the prospects for these. Again, I'm not here today to rekindle that debate, but to point out that there's a much bigger enemy, an evil force so powerful that like Voldemort, most are afraid to speak its name.
Big wine distributors
These companies, and especially their trade group, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, oppose everything we stand for.
Big wine distributors don't want to be bothered with small producers. They do want to scarf them up in their portfolios so they don't face competition. Big wine distributors HATE competition; eliminating it is the raison d'être of the WSWA.
What big wine distributors want is for everyone to just buy 3 Blind Moose and Kendall-Jackson and, when they splurge, splurge on Robert Mondavi Winery or Beringer. These people look at wine like Coca-Cola looks at soda (and once looked at wine, for you historians.) You want variety? We got Chateau St. Jean in 13 flavors. You want cheaper? We got Redwood Creek in 10 flavors.
Big distributors want to eat up shelf space with their product. I highly recommend the film "Beer Wars" for a demonstration of what this is doing to national distribution of artisan beers, even as the production of artisan beers has never been higher.
Big distributors hire sales people first, wine people second if at all. The really big players have a few sommeliers around to be their public face at events. But the people the big distributors send into your local wine shop to represent their 150-page portfolio generally don't know much about wine. Nor do they really care. They could sell security alarms or auto insurance; sales is sales. They talk in lingo that you wouldn't understand unless you have been in the industry, and none of it has to do with minerality or terroir or grape varieties. It's all about how much of a discount they'll give the shop to stock 150 cases of some wine they're trying to unload.
They probably have all those Loire reds that you love somewhere back in the portfolio; the winery struck a deal to carry the brands years ago but the sales person doesn't know what they are, so the only way your shop gets them is if it goes out of the way to ask for them.
You might think you can't buy those wines because Robert Parker doesn't like them, but the truth is the sales people actually have a negative incentive to sell them. The sales person won't get as big a bonus, nor will he get a free trip to Spain or a free HDTV or any of the other goodies that the big wine companies periodically offer big distributors' sales reps to push their brands.
And that little Loire winery is stuck. The owners were happy to be with the biggest wine distributor in its region, but the wines aren't moving. Should they leave, and go to a small distributor? The big distributor is famous for its ruthlessness against competitors. How can some hard-working vigneron abroad hope to succeed in this system?
I know that everybody trying to sell Hungarian whites and Uruguayan reds -- not to mention Mendocino County Petite Sirah and Virginia Cabernet Franc -- is nodding their head in agreement. Why don't they say it publicly? Because they're TERRIFIED of big distributors, who can reduce their business to tasting-room sales if they want to. I have heard hundreds of winery folks complain about distributors, especially including their own, but I don't think I've heard it once on the record. That would be like speaking out against Stalin in the old USSR.
So what can we do about it? Do we need a manifesto?
Maybe. But first, let's acknowledge that distribution is not just an issue for wine lovers, it is THE issue for wine lovers.
Robert Parker and I disagree on who makes the best Hermitage. W.R. Tish and I probably like different Vinho Verdes. Alder Yarrow and I prefer different Rieslings. But ALL wine lovers, including powerful Marvin Shanken and bloggers just starting out, would like all of the world's wines to be easily available just as all of the world's books or designer shoes or eyeglass frames are.
Second, check to see where your Congressional representative stands on HR 1161, cynically nicknamed the "CARE act." Tom Wark does the best job of covering this horrible proposal over at Fermentation and I don't want to spend that kind of time on it. In a nutshell, HR 1161 will make this nation's wine distribution system even worse by giving the big distributors the ability to increase their dominance in many states. Call or write your Congressperson. Tell him/her that you Care -- about shooting down this bill.
While you're at it, find out how much money your Congressional representatives have taken from the WSWA. Blog about it.
But put your own creative mind to the problem. We need a groundswell of ideas and support.
We don't need a manifesto. We need a movement.
We need to recognize that big wine distributors are Voldemort, and we wine lovers need to be the Order of the Phoenix.
If you need a little more motivation, keep in mind that big wine distributors, as I mentioned in an offhand comment on the Palate Press debate, are the biggest fans of the 100-point scale. "I got 93-point wines, 92-point wines ... you need a $7 red? I got a nice 88-pointer right here." Seriously, that's EXACTLY how it goes. Nobody wants that, not Robert Parker, not Marvin Shanken and certainly not me and you.
It's a big job, opening up this nation's wine distribution system, and we'll have to celebrate victories along the way like the Supreme Court's 2005 decision on direct shipping because we may not live long enough to see our final victory.
Any wine anywhere to anyone over 21
But doesn't that goal sound worth fighting for?
Let's fight then: not each other, but Voldemort and his