Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Any wine Anywhere to Anyone over 21: A call to arms

W. R. Tish and I had a little debate on Palate Press last week about perhaps the wine blog world's favorite demon, the 100-point scale. While I know I could get pageviews and comments by rekindling that debate here, I've got a more noble purpose in mind.

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'ĂȘtre 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.

What's third? I don't know; I'm just a wine blogger, not a political strategist. For that I'd like to call out my friend David White of Terroirist, who is, to give us some suggestions.

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.

Which is:
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 wine eaters.

Any wine
to Anyone
over 21


Dan McGrew said...

I know exactly where my congressman stands on this issue and I've already informed the s.o.b.that he won't get my vote. Sadly, he doesn't need my vote since the only way he could lose in this district is to change his name to Anthony Wiener.

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Maybe it's because Vermont, is itself, a small, unheralded and idiosyncratic place, that we are fortunate to have six independently run distributors, who provide us with a selection that is pretty impressive considering the size of the demographic served. Sure some of them also bring in the big expected brands, via the big wholesalers, but that extra layer adds cost which can make the smaller selected brands more competetive, and we manage to get some crazy allocations because of buying patterns. Recently heard about a couple of Austrian visitors who were floored to find multiple wines made by their neighbors in a tiny VT shop.

We do need to vote with our wallets, and shine lights on the wines that do not get their deserved attention. Even if there is little chance that folks in the 49 states, other than our own, can find and enjoy it, the exercize is an important reminder of the treasures out there, beyond the score-o-sphere.

Points centric marketing still does appear here in VT, it is an inescapable and chronic condition endemic to th US as a whole, but in I invite folks ( over 21 ) to come to experience what is still currently a pleasant safe haven.

Anonymous said...

I am a sales rep for a distributor in Colorado and I can't completely dispute your argument. However, I don't think all the blame should fall on the distributor. Look across the land and see who owns most of those shelves where the big brands reside. Here in Colorado there are dozens of small, wine focused distributors that cover the Denver metro area and some of the key mountain resort areas. Several of them do an excellent job of providing depth and breadth of selection for Colorado wine consumers. They keep the larger guys on their toes and force them to mine their entire portfolio to get that "Loire" producer's wines into the market. How is that possible you may ask? There are no chain/single owner-multiple outlet accounts in Colorado which gives rise to a plethora of small, neighborhood, wine focused retailers. I would ask the wine consumer who enjoys our state's selection (and other states with no chains) to consider that when tossing off comments like "I wish I could buy my wine where I buy my laundry detergent" - well, you can if you want one of the top 20 brands. That Loire producer's steely Sancerre that pairs wonderfully with your grilled prawns? Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...


Blake: Touche! And Thanks for the outstanding post.


Mr. Anonymous, until distributor reps and distributor owners start calling out their trade associations for their anti-consumer actions like opposing direct to consumer shipping by retailers and wineries and pushing horrible self-serving legislation like H.R. 1161, your comments will carry little authority.

Tom Wark...

Nick said...

I could not agree more or more strongly with this post. Excellent call to awareness here.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: There is nothingnecessarily inconsistent with fine wine stores and multiple outlets. We ahve that in california, and our store, K&L is full of small producer wines, chosen by our passionate buyers. And we are huge supporters of the Specialty wine retailers Association, dedicated to consumer access to fine wine. See www.winewithoutborders.org for more info.

Ketih Wollenberg
K&L Burgundy BUyer
President, SWRA

Wes Barton said...

One thing that always seems to be omitted when people complain about the big distributors is that the big producers whose wine they push share their interests. They work hand in hand, producing that easy spectrum of wines at all the price points. Diageo, Fosters and Gallo have all contributed large sums of lobbying money to enact anti-shipping legislation.

So, it seems to me that every wine consumer who cares about an unrestricted market for wine should make every effort to avoid purchasing wines from these producers.

Tish said...

THis all makes sense. Hats off to you for spelling it all out with just enough drama/gravity, and with a catchy tagline that people should be able to understand and get behind.

Having just come back from a swing thru several states, I was reminded of just how stunningly ifferent each state is. We may never be able to change that, but the wine culture in the U.S. has matured enough, I think, for every wine lover to be able to support the simple idea of anyone anywhere over 21 being able to purchase any wine. Given the fundamental simplicity of this concept, I think it could and should indeed become a movement.

Beau said...

I think Wes Barton's comment needs more attention. Just saying.

Matt Mauldin said...

I work for a large wine distributor. My company has several sales divisions to address specific portions of our vast portfolio.

In my role within the company, I constantly seek small producers and esoteric wines in our portfolio to serve my account base. It's also true that at times I have to devote attention to the company's larger suppliers. We do well with some producers and struggle with others... regardless of the size of the producers. The best opportunity for our business is to represent a full range of products as effectively as we can.

The point is, wine distribution is a business. Nothing more, nothing less. It's our job to make money, and as with most businesses, our business plan is determined by the conditions of the market. As mentioned above, the marketing initiatives of large suppliers, and the buying initiatives of large chains go a long way in determining the conditions of the market. Distributors mirror those conditions in many ways.

The smart business owners among the small independently owned wineries know how to help their wines move through the system. Those who don't will usually have problems with whatever distributor they are with, large or small.

I don't agree with every political stance that the distribution business takes... but I understand that is a very nuanced business.

All that being said, this post is rather dogmatic and simplistic in its approach to a pretty complicated issue. The politics of it aside, there are plenty of wine-educated and wine-caring sales people on the streets for distributors both large and small everyday. You have to be in order to put up with the everything from intense competition to schlepping wine around in 100 degree heat. To insinuate otherwise is disingenuous.

There are scores of good hard working people in the wine sales business who read and appreciate blogs like this everyday... there are better ways to involve them in the debate.

W. Blake Gray said...

Matt: I am open to your suggestion about how I can involve you in the debate.

You see my goal; I put it in big red letters. What can you and your company contribute toward reaching it? We would love to have your help.

Matt Mauldin said...

Blake, a little less heavy-handedness on the issue and toward those who work on that side would surely bring some thoughtful people into the conversation.

I do enjoy your writing. Perhaps I took the jist of the piece too personally. But I take my job seriously, and try to do it well as I can, and for the benefit of all involved. So do many of my colleagues.

David White said...

Matt Mauldin accuses Blake of being "dogmatic and simplistic," but his description of how the market functions for distributors is much more "dogmatic and simplistic," and as a result, it's misleading and dishonest.

In franchise states (NC, VA, etc.) wholesalers have exclusive rights to the wines they carry - so there's ZERO competition. In every other industry, retailers can play vendors off one another. Not so with wine.

Other states (TN, I believe) literally prohibit producers from firing their wholesaler - it can only work the other way. That's not a functioning market - that's organized crime.

If the market functioned as Matt pretended it does, oenophiles (and retailers, restaurant owners, etc.) might actually support distributors. But right now, the wholesale lobby spends millions protecting its interests, preventing competition, and crushing consumer choice.

Matt Mauldin said...

David, I understand your argument. I do work in a franchise state. You're right... It's not the same as other industries. The historical argument from the industry is its role in being the tax collector for the state, etc. How best to govern the commerce side of something where the government has a stake, unlike other industries, I don't have an answer for that. I'm not sure how it is set up in non franchise states, but they are very closely related in franchise states.

In my state, the competition comes from the fact that there are many distributors. A restauranteur can run a wine program and not buy from a given distributor. A distributors business practices, such as how they deal with situations such as the release of unhappy partners, can determine how they are perceived in the market.

I'm an open minded guy. I'm interested in reading about solutions for better sales and distribution of wine. I just don't think you can say that it can me modeled after other industries without speaking about how the legalities of alcohol are governed.

Bryan Maletis said...

Blake, that was an excellent post. Thank you for publishing your thoughts. I have worked for distributors, importers, retailers, and now for myself, where my wife and I sell grower Champagne directly to the people. All of what you said is true and it is nice to see it written down. I love the motto that you came up with and would like to help with the movement. Cheers!

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for all the kind comments, folks. I really wish I had more plans to offer. But as you can see from these comments, my readers include some of the smartest people in and out of the wine business.

What can we do? What should we do?

Anonymous said...

Wes said:

"One thing that always seems to be omitted when people complain about the big distributors is that the big producers whose wine they push share their interests. They work hand in hand, producing that easy spectrum of wines at all the price points. Diageo, Fosters and Gallo have all contributed large sums of lobbying money to enact anti-shipping legislation."

This has not been true for more than a decade about Gallo or Diageo

Tom Wark...

Matt Mauldin said...

Blake, as each state is subject to own laws and governance... I guess the consumer movement needs to focus on the most problematic (like PA). I'm in GA- while we are a franchise state, we have about 25-30 active wine distributors (thus competition), allow shipping, have a strong independent retailer base, and a vibrant restaurant culture in Atlanta... it keeps us in the wholesale business on our toes for sure. Our biggest problem IMO is that our retailers cannot ship, but our consumers can have wine shipped in... I wish our retailers in state had that option.