This week’s wine news: Top attorney lambastes three-tier, plus an honor for sommelier James Tidwell and a look at wine’s future
• A legal blast: John Hinman is one of the most respected attorneys in the country in liquor law. So it’s a big deal that he said: “The wholesalers are dedicated to maintaining their position as mandatory middleman at artificially inflated margins. This is why they continue to perpetuate the fallacy that the three-tier system is necessary to protect the public.” It’s also a big deal that he said it in a post on the wine-searcher.com website, where the stories usually aren’t quite so outspoken. But wine-searcher exists to help retailers sell wine, and they often do so by bypassing the distributors and wholesalers who make up the second tier of the three-tier system. So consider this a shot across the bow of the distributors, and let’s watch and see what happens next.
• Well-deserved: I’ve known sommelier James Tidwell for almost my entire career as a wine writer, and few people understand wine or love it the way James does. So it’s not surprising that he has been named one of four finalists for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s prestigious Outstanding Alumni Award. The trust offers wine and spirits education for professionals throughout the world, and its graduates are some of the biggest names in the restaurant and sommelier business. The award will be given Jan. 22 in London.
• Ingredient labels: At first glance, the only thing that French wine guru Pascaline Lepeltier and I have in common is that we both like wine. But, as Cathy Huyghe reports in Forbes, Lepeltier sees five keys for wine’s future, and one of them is transparent ingredient lists — something I have written about extensively. Lepeltier told Huyghe that “People are not stupid. Give them the education and they can make the decision themselves. More explanation, more education, more critical thinking.”
? Appreciating wine: James Tidwell, who works for the Four Seasons in suburban Dallas, is not only one of the most knowledgeable people in the wine business, but one of the nicest. So I'm particularly happy to note this interview with James, where he talks about what it's like to taste some of the world's great wines: "I knew food and wine went well together, but this transcended all conceptions of how they can be paired. It really has influenced my understanding of what can be done with food and wine."
? Making the Amazon model work: A rare look at how and what Amazon is doing with its wine marketplace, courtesy of Wines & Vines magazine. Peter Faricy, the executive in charge of the wine marketplace, wouldn't discuss sales or how many wineries are participating, but did note that the Internet giant is "super pleased with the reception so far. ? More importantly, he said, Amazon is working as fast as possible to add other states to the current lineup — 15 plus the District of Columbia, while ensuring complete compliance with the various local liquor regulations. It charges wineries 15 percent of the sales price to be part of the marketplace, but is waiving some fees.
? Want to be a national chain?Then offer better service, says the man in charge of Total Wine & More, whiich is agressively expanding across the U.S. ?If we can have the best people, we win. You ?re not going to find those people in Walmart or anywhere else, ? said president and co-owner David Trone. This is, of course, easier said than done, and I've heard it about a zillion times in the two-plus decades I've written about business. I once spent 40 minutes in a Dallas Total Wine without an employee even looking at me, and the one employee I watched wait on another customer didn't seem all that interested. But maybe that's a small sample size.
The final nominees will be announced on March 21, and the winner will be announced May 9. The Beards are the food and wine business’ equivalent of the Academy Awards, and they include a glitzy awards ceremony. If James is a finalist, will he wear a tux? If so, I’ll run a picture on the blog.
The semifinal list has some big names on it, but the other one that impressed me is Glenn Bardgett, who runs the wine program at Annie Gunn’s in suburban St. Louis. Glenn is also a huge advocate of regional wine, and he is helping us with our DrinkLocalWine.com conference in St. Louis in April, which is focusing on Missouri wine.
James Tidwell of the Four Seasons in suburban Dallas is one of the top sommeliers in the country, the co-founder of the TexSom sommelier wine education group, and a wine blogger. As such, his view of of the wine world is a little different from the Wine Curmudgeon’s — call it more top down than bottom up. James buys wines from distributors to sell in his restaurant, which means he has more wines to choose from and which is not quite the same thing as desperately searching a retailer to find something interesting for dinner.
Or, as James told me the other day, “People used to tell me they couldn’t find good wine to drink, and I thought they were crazy.”
“Every retailer seems to have the same 300 wines,” he says. “No wonder consumers end up drinking the same grocery store-style wines over and over.”
Which is the point of this story. If one of the most knowledgeable wine people in the country is frustrated by the conundrum that is wine availability, then don’t feel badly if you’re frustrated by it, too.