Tag Archives: wine laws

How to stop Amazon Go: Try to buy wine

amazon go
Look at the lower right: In the most high-tech store in the history of the world, “We check ID.”

The Amazon Go employee-less store actually has an employee – to check IDs if you want to buy wine or beer

Amazon’s failure in the wine business, where it shuttered not one, but two sites, might be the only defeat the retail giant has ever suffered. So it’s probably no surprise that its new, revolutionary Amazon Go store, designed without employees or checkout lines and which has panicked every other retailer in the world, does have an employee: To check your ID if you want to buy wine.

Call it the revenge of the three-tier system.

None of the store’s incredible 21st century technology can do the ID job, even though (as described by Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech) there are so many cameras that it’s impossible not to be seen: “They watch your every move from the moment you walk in and scan your smartphone. Every item you pick up and put down is then tracked to you as an entity – not by your face, but by your body and hands milling about and grabbing stuff.” The system works so well that it even foiled Machkovech’s attempts to steal something.

But not for booze. Writes Machkovech: “The other unusual process involves purchasing alcohol. Amazon Go leaves one staffer in the back of the shop next to a selection of beer and wine in order to check IDs. There was nothing fancy or high-tech about this when I went to peruse the beer.”

Of course, nothing fancy or high tech – because we regulate wine, beer, and spirits using last century’s three-tier system, devised when there were still ice wagons, an orange was an exotic Christmas gift, and nine out 10 rural homes didn’t have electricity.

The Wine Curmudgeon does not advocate underage drinking, and I have always emphasized responsible alcohol consumption on the blog. But – and I know a little about post-modern tech, how this sort of operation works, and a decade’s worth of improvements in ID technology – it’s inconceivable that Amazon didn’t find a way to check IDs using something other than a person. It’s difficult to believe that there’s no way to tie an Amazon account to the person who owns it, so that a 16-year-old can’t pose as someone who is 37.

But it probably didn’t even bother. The failure of both Amazon wine stores taught one of the world’s most powerful and influential companies an important lesson: You can’t beat the three-tier system.

Photo courtesy of Recode/Jason Del Ray, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 502: Wine prices edition

Wine pricesThis week’s wine news: Lidl unleashes its cheap wine collection, plus Total Wine wins court victory and cheaper orchestra wine

Score one for Lidl: Lidl’s $6 Fleur Saint-Antoine red Bordeaux, a blend of merlot and cabernet franc, is a winner, writes Bernard Showman on the South Carolina Wine Joe blog. Showman lives in South Carolina, where the discount grocer that has promised great cheap wine, has opened its first stores. I’m impressed; I know I haven’t seen anything like that from France at my local Aldi, which is Lidl’s arch-rival. That may explain why two distributors were in my Aldi the other day, trying to figure out how to get better quality wine on the shelf. And, yes, I was eavesdropping.

Score one for Total Wine: The almost national liquor store chain has won a court victory in Massachusetts which will allow it to sell wine, spirits, and beer at deep discounts. A state court judge said that a Massachusetts law didn’t forbid Total from discounting if it met certain criteria. The ruling is fairly dense, involving how to determine the actual wholesale price of the products that Total sells. The result, though, is another victory in the battle to eliminate minimum pricing in Massachusetts, where state law regulates what retailers can charge.

Score one for the San Diego Symphony: Regular visitor warbu forwards the wine list from the San Diego Symphony’s summer concert series, and it’s amazing – quality wine at fair prices. A glass of more than drinkable French rose for $9? Or a bottle of decent Spanish albarino for $29? This raises the question of how an orchestra can do what so many restaurants can’t or won’t. Case in point: I ate a high-end Dallas chain last week, where a bottle of vinho verde was listed at $30, or a six to one markup. Can’t get much more greedy than that, can you?

Ask the WC 10: Spanish wine, wine prices, oak

Spanish wineBecause the customers always have wine questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular wine advice feature. Ask the Wine Curmudgeon wine-related question by clicking here.

Dear Wine Curmudgeon:
You’re always writing about Spanish wine and how cheap it is. Well, why is it so cheap?
Suspicious wine drinker

Dear Suspicious:
The Spanish wine industry is always among the two or three biggest in the world, and often ranks first in exports. So there’s a lot of wine in Spain, and not very many people to drink it. The country’s population is 46 million; by comparison, California has 38 million. In other words, it’s the law of supply and demand, where too much wine and too few wine drinkers drives down the price. Also, costs in Spain are usually lower than elsewhere, especially for land, so the wine costs less to make than California or France. Finally, don’t forget that cheap wine does not mean bad wine.

Cheers WC:
The grocery store chain where I live in East Texas marks otherwise cheap wine way up. What’s $8 elsewhere can be anywhere from $12-$15 in their stores. How can they get away with that?
Your fan in East Texas

Dear Fan:
Thank you for the compliment. Your prices are the way they are because much of East Texas remains dry, and the supermarket doesn’t have any competition. You either buy from them, or you don’t buy at all. And that doesn’t even take into account the silliness that is grocery store wine pricing.

Greetings Wine Curmudgeon:
You’re always writing about how a wine has too much oak and making baseball bat jokes when it does. What’s wrong with too much oak? How can you tell?

Dear Confused:
It’s not that I think too much oak is wrong. It’s that I don’t like that style of wine, because the oak is usually too dominating. Too much oak can give the wine a variety of flavors depending on what the winemaker does – vanilla, caramel, toast, and even spice and butterscotch. I want to taste the fruit, and prefer oak to be one more part, and not the only part, of the wine. It’s one reason why I love white Burgundy, the chardonnay made in the Burgundy region of France. The oak is used to make everything else, like the fruit, taste better. And, of course, if you like wine with lots of oak, drink it. Just understand the difference.

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
Ask the WC 9: Premiumization, wine bottles, Chicago Cubs
Ask the WC 8: Restaurant wine, storing wine, sparkling wine
Ask the WC 7: Winespeak, availability, Bordeaux

Winebits 454: Judgment of Paris, wine pricing, low alcohol wine

Judgment of ParisThis week’s news: An analysis of the scoring at the legendary Judgment of Paris, plus retailer Total Wine sues to lower prices, and a low alcohol wine brand.

It’s all in the scores: David Morrison, writing on the Academic Wino site, discusses the scores given to the wines at the Judgment of Paris, where California bested France and established the U.S. as a top wine producing country. It’s a fascinating post, and the math isn’t too difficult to follow. In this, it shows just random the experts’ scores seem to be. As Morrison writes, “Instead, the differences among the judges were much larger than among the wines. Of the 11 judges, it seems that 5 were fairly consistent among themselves as to which wines they thought were high quality, while the other 6 were not, and these two groups provided rather different scores from each other.” And yet we use scores to continue to determine wine quality, despite all these limitations.

Lawsuit for lower prices: Retailer Total Wine has sued the state of Connecticut, saying that state laws that set minimum prices for alcohol violate federal law. Connecticut prohibits liquor retailers from selling wine and spirits below cost in almost all cases, the only state in the union that does so (though other states have minimum pricing laws). The Total lawsuit, one more in a long line filed by the fast-expanding retailer, is yet another challenge to the three-tier system of regulation that has governed booze sales since the end of Prohibition. Ironically, the Connecticut law is only 35 years old, but was passed to update minimum pricing laws that had already been in place, and may have been there to regulate alcohol consumption as much as to protect retailers.

Less alcohol, same taste: In the on-going debate over high alcohol wines, those who like high alcohol argue that it’s the only way to get big fruit flavors. That’s where a New Zealand producer says it has found a way to get those fruit flavors, but at lower alcohols. The idea sounds goofy to me – rocks in the vineyard that hold heat from sunlight – but Stoneleigh Vineyards says it can get fruit flavors and alcohol levels at less than 10 percent, about one-quarter lower than normal. The lower alcohol wines aren’t available in the U.S., so I can’t tell you whether they’re any good. But I will keep an eye out for them.

Winebits 445: Wine scores, Veramonte, Tennessee

wine scoresTake that, wine scores: Writes MJ Skeggs in the Portland Mercury about wine scores: “Yep, despite how the tasting industry (the magazines, star reviewers, bloggers, anyone with a palate and a keyboard) claims objectivity, it comes down to personal preference.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, though I’ve probably said it just as well many, many times. Skeggs lists eight other reasons to avoid scores, as well as the best alternative – find a good retailer and go from there. And how can one not recommend a wine article that includes a Spinal Tap reference?

Chilean winery sold: Control of Veramonte, once a star of cheap Chilean wine, has been sold to one of Spain’s biggest producers. This is probably good news, since Vermaonte’s current owners have presided over the wine as it has become more expensive and less well made. The new lead owner, Gonzalez Byass, makes Beronia, always quality cheap wine.

Tennessee grocery store wine: How big a deal is supermarket wine? More than 400 grocery stores in Tennessee started selling wine this month, the first time they were allowed to do so under new legislation. The fight to allow wine in supermarkets in the state dates to the 1970s, and has been called the biggest change in the state’s liquor laws since Prohibition. Where have we heard that before?

Is this the end of For Sale in Texas Only?

For sale in Texas onlyA proposed change to federal wine label laws could mean the end for wine that says For Sale in Texas Only – a term that implies that a wine is local when it might be made with grapes from anywhere in the world.

The Treasury department’s tax and trade bureau announced this week that it wants to revise the regulations that allow a wine to carry For Sale in Only designation. In Texas, we call it FSTO – which stands for For Sale in Texas Only – but you’ll see FSO labels in every state: For Sale in Colorado Only, For Sale in Pennsylvania Only, and so forth.

Under the new rules, wines labeled FSO won’t be allowed to list the vintage or the grape it is made with, like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. Currently, FSO wines can list both and look local in almost every respect, save that they don’t have a state name or other appellation on the front label. The only clue that they aren’t local is a line in small type on the back label that says FSO, and that only wine writers, wine geeks, and winemakers understand.

FSO is sometimes used to circumvent appellation laws when the wine isn’t made with enough local fruit for it to have a state name. This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so, as the number of wineries has almost doubled and grape acreage hasn’t kept up.

That’s because appellation laws require that 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that state for it to labeled Texas (or whatever). If a wine is made with less than 75 percent local grapes, it must use the word American on the front label, something producers don’t like to do because it’s obvious that the wine isn’t local. And what’s the point of local wine that isn’t local?

Hence the FSO label.

It’s important to note that FSO isn’t illegal and that many producers use it legitimately. The problem comes when it’s used to disguise non-local wine as local. That, apparently, was the impetus for the rules change – a Georgia winery selling an FSO wine made with Napa Valley grapes in North Carolina, and which caught the attention of a key Napa trade group and the Napa Valley’s U.S. congressman.

In fact, a spokeswoman for U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif)., who chairs the Congressional wine caucus, emailed me to say that FSO in the Georgia case was “a TTB labeling loophole” and “works against strict and rigorous labeling rules to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”

The actual rules proposal is almost indecipherable unless you practice liquor law. My thanks to Austin attorney Kimberly Frost, who did her usual brilliant job in explaining it to me. The new rules will limit FSO wines to terms like red wine or white wine on the front label, in the hope that producers will use the more accurate American appellation so they can list the grapes and the vintage..

One irony to all this? The new FSO rules may give regional producers incentive to buy California bulk wine and put their label on it. That means  we could see more California wine sold by wineries in the other 47 — Texas-bottled Russian River pinot noir, anyone? That’s because the revisions will allow producers to use grape names and vintage on California bulk wine, which they couldn’t do if they bought California grapes or grape juice and combined them with local grapes to make FSO wine.

The tax and trade bureau is taking comments until Aug. 22, but there’s no time frame on when the rules will take effect. My guess, given how slowly the agency works, is that we won’t see anything until the middle of next year, and it could be even later than that.