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?
? Nevermore! What happens when the state booze cops arrest alcohol vendors at a food and wine event? The event gets canceled, and no one is quite sure what happened. That was the case at one of Sacramento’s most popular festivals, when the 2015 event was canceled after the 2014 arrests. Organizers said wine and beer vendors didn’t want to participate this year, given the threat of arrest. Why were the vendors arrested in 2014? Something to do with what are called tied-house laws, which regulate the relationship between alcohol producers and alcohol retailers and are integral to three-tier. The story is fuzzy about exactly what happened, but tied house enforcement can be capricious and over stupid things — even something as simple as a retailer using a producer logo that he or she got from the producer, and not through the distributor.
? Not just for wine writers: The knock against the push for lower alcohol wines is that it is being powered by elitist wine critics (overlooking the fact that the most elitist of us started the high alcohol thing). The latter insist that consumers either don’t care or like high alcohol wines. Hence the welcome that Australian researchers, working with Treasury Wine Estates and a leading British retailer, are trying to develop lower alcohol wines that consumers will like. Said one researcher: “We would love to produce a wine with zero percent alcohol that tastes like 15 percent, but even if we get a quarter of the way, that would be good. Ten percent or 5 percent is also desirable.”
? Alternative Prosecco: Apparently, there is a Prosecco shortage, though the Wine Curmudgeon has a difficult time believing this when he sees row after row of Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, on grocery store shelves. In which case, several leading Prosecco producers will make Prosecco-style wines from other countries, showing just how un-wine the wine business has become in its quest to confuse us to make money. One of the brands, called Provetto, is from Spain, and sounds about as tasty as its name implies. It will also sell for about the same as a quality bottle of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, which raises all sorts of questions that would make me too cranky if I answered them.
? Ontario does its duty: The Canadian province has made major changes in the way it sells beer, wine, and spirits, something that seemed hard to believe in a province with the Canadian equivalent of state stores. Nevertheless, liquor reform has come, and it will soon be possible to buy beer in a grocery store, buy wine online, and sleect from more interesting win in the province. And pricing will become more consumer friendly, with provincial officials vowing to negotiate better deals with producers. “The days of monopoly are done,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne. Which raises the question: If Ontario can do this, and it has been called one of the last bastions of Prohibition, why do we have such trouble reforming liquor laws in the U.S.?
? Even in Texas: Sort of, anyway. The Texas Legislature is discussing whether to allow Walmart, Costco, Kroger and other publicly-held companies to open liquor stores in the state. Currently, only privately-held companies can get a license to do that, and there is even a provision in the law that forbids people who aren’t related from owning more than five stores. The Lege, as the late Molly Ivins so fondly called it, probably won’t change the law this session, but there is momentum to allow grocery stores to own liquor stores and it could happen sooner rather than later. Why they need to own liquor stores, rather than selling liquor in their existing stores, is a story for another time.
? But probably not in Pennsylvania: The blog has covered liquor reform in Pennsylvania almost since its inception, and nothing ever seems to happen. That has not stopped liquor stores in Delaware, which borders Pennsylvania, from holding panicked meetings to demand reform in Delaware in case Pennsylvania actually changes its state store system. The Wine Curmudgeon has some advice for Delaware: “Chill, dude.” The day Pennsylvania gets rid of state stores is the the day I write an homage to 15 percent chardonnay.