Why can’t we buy the wines we like via direct shipping? What’s so evil about that in the second decade of the 21st century?
This is the second of two parts looking at how the century-old three-tier system still prevents us from buying wine on-line or from out-of-state retailers, hamstringing 21st century technology and sensibility. Today, part II: Dear Supreme Court: Please fix three-tier and allow direct shipping. Thursday, part I: The Supreme Court’s 2005 Granholm decision, and why it didn’t change three-tier as much as everyone hoped.
Dear Supreme Court:
Yes, I know you’re busy. And yes, I know you are facing immense constitutional decisions that could alter the future of the republic. Still, it’s not like this one isn’t important, either: Please fix three-tier, so we can buy wine on-line and from out-of-state retailers.
I ask this not just to make it easier to buy $10 Gascon wine. I ask this because wine drinkers should be able to buy whatever they want, and not the wines that multi-billion dollar wholesalers and retailers allow them to buy. Because that’s the way the system works now – three-tier says each wine has to have a distributor in every state, so if a distributor isn’t interested in the wine, we’re out of luck. And since big distributors and big retailers want the same boring wines, we’re doubly out of luck.
How bad has the situation become? First, as you know, lower courts are not exactly sticking to your decisions. Shortly after you ruled that states couldn’t forbid non-residents from getting a retail liquor license in the Tennessee Retailers case, a federal appeals court upheld a law that said an Indiana resident couldn’t get a license to sell wine in Michigan. Talk about disrespect.
Second, I’m getting more complaints about availability than ever, and it’s not like I write about weird wines made with weird grapes. No natural or orange wines on the blog, and certainly nothing from places like Georgia. Instead, wines from the five or six biggest producing countries in the world, made with reasonably common grapes — and that I have bought so I know that they are available somewhere. My mantra has always been: An independent retailer in a good-sized city should be able to sell readers the wines I write about.
But that seems to be less applicable as wine consolidates. A reader wrote the other day that he couldn’t find a California wine in California, and his search included an independent retailer. Even worse: another reader, no doubt more frustrated, asked if I could cobble together some sort of retail network for the blog’s wines. This is what it has come to, dear justices – someone wants the Wine Curmudgeon to sell wine. And I can’t even figure out a way to sell t-shirts.
So please do something, sooner rather than later (though I would be happy with later). In fact, it almost doesn’t matter if you decide to forever forbid retail to consumer shipping. It’s a decision, at least, and as bad is it would be for wine, it’s still better than what we have now. Which makes everyone crazy save the people who benefit from it.
Yours in jurisprudence,
The Wine Curmudgeon
Drawing courtesy of Colorado Public Radio, using a Creative Commons license
This week’s wine news: More restaurants opt to sell carryout booze, plus Illinois wineries embrace rose and local wine needs to be more affordable
• Restaurant carryout booze: More restaurants see carryout booze, including wine and cocktails, as a way to help the weather the duration. Which is pretty damned amazing, since this was illegal in most of the country before the pandemic. In Texas, for example, the governor has signed an order allowing restaurants to sell to-go cups, just like New Orleans. This is mind-boggling; most of Dallas was dry in some way until a decade ago, and the state is still famous for its dry counties. Perhaps even more amazing? A suburban Chicago restaurateur is selling wine at retail for carryout and not phony restaurant prices. She hopes to make up the difference in volume – an amazing concept, yes?
• Local rose: Just when the WC gets all flustered about the future of Drink Local, I read this in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in downstate Carbondale (where, a long time ago, I was a general assignment reporter). The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Alliance launched an aggressive and seemingly expensive marketing campaign this spring to make rose Illinois’ official state wine, and “unite” the industry with a common product. Give the WC’s enthusiasm for Drink Local and pink wine, what could be a better idea?
• Not just in England: Oz Clarke, one of the patriarchs of modern wine writing, says English wine won’t become more successful or more popular until more people can afford to buy it. This is a lesson that emerging wine regions, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, never seem able to understand. It’s one of the biggest problems with Drink Local, where producers don’t understand that people are more likely to buy $15 wine than $30 wine, no matter how noble the $30 wine is. Clarke told a wine seminar that it was crucial to get “really good bottles of still wine in front of people for the same price as, say, New Zealand.” Wise words, indeed.
This week’s wine news: Massachusetts is one step closer to allowing food stores to sell beer and wine, plus Microsoft axes people for AI writing and Amazon will open a traditional supermarket
• Massachusetts three-tier: Supporters of a ballot question that would let Massachusetts convenience and food stores sell beer are step closer to voting on the issue. The state’s highest court rule that an election to allow the sales was constitutional. However, supporters must still gather enough petition signatures to ensure an election. The Massachusetts three-tier system is complicated, even for for the U.S., with state and local governments each issuing liquor licences based on a variety of criteria. The ballot measure would let local authorities issue licenses allowing food stores to sell beer and wine over and above the current system.
• Thank you, Microsoft: The Wine Curmudgeon’s disdain for Microsoft is well known, but its recent decision to fire people in favor of machines is a bit much even for the tech giant. It will replace 50 journalists with artificial intelligence machines to edit news stories for the company’s MSN website. As noted on the blog, AI is coming – but it’s not here yet with something as simple as tasting notes. And asking AI to select stories and photos for the website – deciding story importance, how the pictures look, story and photo placement on the page, and so forth – is much harder than writing toasty and oaky (which I know from having done both for my entire professional career). But what do you expect from the company that gave us Windows 8?
• Amazon not go? Amazon will open a traditional supermarket – and not an Amazon Go store – in suburban Chicago. This is huge news, and not just for Kroger and Safeway. If Amazon is serious about the grocery business, it will have to sell wine. So will it follow the others and throw up a Great Wall of Wine with fake priceing plonk or actually do something creative to benefit wine drinkers? The new store isn’t far from my mom; after Illinois lift its lockdown, I’ll ask her to investigate for the blog.
This week’s wine news: Captain Obvious strikes again – a study says customer service matters in selling wine. Plus, the end of a Texas wine era and a victory for direct shipping
• Believe it or not: A new study has discovered that customer service is more important than anything else in selling wine from winery tasting rooms. Or, as Paul Mabray, who probably knows more about winery tasting room sales than anyone put it, “File under nothing could be more obvious.” In other words, we have one more wine-related study that does nothing to help the wine business adapt to the 21st century. My grandfather, who sold blue jeans to farmers in central Ohio, knew about customer service 80 years ago. Then again, he didn’t have to publish or perish.
• The end of an era: The WC didn’t talk about Texas wine over the weekend; the Kerrville Fall Folk Festival and its annual Texas wine panel is no more. I will miss the event, and not just because I got to promote Drink Local. Kerrville was an adventure in and of itself. There is irony, too, since local wine has become a Winestream Media darling, and one of the events that helped it achieve that status is gone. Yes, a Texas wine panel was added to the Memorial Day festival, but it’s not the same thing.
• Hooray for Mississippi: A judge threw out an attempt by Mississippi’s liquor cops to stop residents from receiving wine from out-of-state retailers and wine clubs. It’s a ruling that could be significant in the continuing fight over three-tier reform. The Associated Press reports that a Rankin County judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit, though his written ruling offered few details. It’s another blow to state attempts, says the story, in restricting direct to consumer wine sales.
This week’s wine news: Volcano wine is the next big thing, plus more three-tier foolishness and the history of the word booze
• But what about the lava? Philip White, writing for InDaily, is more than little snarky in his assessment of the next big trend: “The next sommelier-driven lunge of wine fashion is a lot damn hotter than that. And older. It’s volcanic.” Yes, we’re going to be told to drink wine made from grapes grown near volcanoes. White’s assessment includes an introduction to plate tectonics, the process that forms volcanoes from the earth’s crust, and a brief tour of music from the early 1960s to mid-1970s. And, as near as I can tell, he doesn’t think much of the idea.
• Not in your restaurant: An iconic Texas barbecue restaurant near Austin wants to make wine, which seems like a reasonable request. But state law says the The Salt Lick can’t – it’s illegal in Texas for someone to own both a winery and a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages. The article is well-written, describing a situation common in much of the country where the state legislature and top elected officials are held hostage by campaign cash from those who don’t want to lose their legal monopoly on selling alcohol.
• Origins of the word booze: Caroline Bologna, writing in the Huffington Post, ponders the origin of the word booze. She quotes the legendary 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who knew a thing or two about drinking: The “verb ‘to bouse’ meant ‘to drink lavishly,’ the adjective ‘bousy’ meant ‘drunken,’ and a ‘bousing can’ was a term for a drinking cup. There’s more uncertainty before that, including a 14th century reference to bouse and a debate as to whether the word is comes from Dutch or German.
? Barely any growth: U.S. wine sales continued to plateau in 2015, reports Impact Databank — up just .02 percent for the year based on the number of cases, following a 1 percent gain in 2014. The rest of the news is even worse, says the report: The “estimated volume increase represents the smallest rise in [22 years]. And after steadily increasing from 1994-2011, per-capita wine consumption is projected to decline for the fourth consecutive year, as Americans bypass wine in favor of spirits, RTDs and cider.” RTD is an industry term for ready to drink, like flavored beers and spirits. The Wine Curmudgeon, noting the wine industry’s obsession with raising prices and trading up over the past couple of years, isn’t surprised. What’s the most basic rule of economics? If prices increase, demand decreases. But which, obviously, seems to be OK with the wine business.
? No cold beer in Indiana: An early candidate for the 2016 three-tier Curmudgie is the federal appeals court that ruled that Indiana is allowed to forbid grocery and convenience stores from selling cold beer while allowing liquor stores to do so. The Indianapolis Star said that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there were legitimate differences between selling beer in a liquor store and selling it in a grocery and convenience stores, a point of law which I’m sure I would understand if I were a lawyer. As a wine writer, it’s baffling, and only points to the foolishness of three-tier.
? Big Wine winespeak: The Wine Curmudgeon enjoys noting the public utterances of those in the wine business, particularly when they demonstrate how little so many of them seem to care about wine quality. Because what does quality have to do with profit? The most recent comes from the woman who runs Treasury Wine Estates’ operations in the Americas, in which she used “masstige” twice, said that a marketing deal with the Texas Rangers baseball team would help sell New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and explained why young men will buy wine if it has a convict on the label. Is it any wonder I get so cranky so easily?