At times I am sure we sound a little like malcontents complaining about how silly the mechanics and protocols of this unique industry might seem to the theoretical ‘rational man’. I remember multiple attempts to try to explain the ‘nuances’ of the wine business to my father-in-law (who owned pharmacies) and getting understandable looks of utter bewilderment. Most folks who read our stuff would probably prefer that we focus only on the positive aspects of the wine industry. Hey, there are many, which is why we do what we do. But there are ongoing issues, beliefs, and practices among wine ‘professionals’ that are silly enough when viewed from our perspective within the industry. We suspect some of the things that are routine in the biz would be perceived as absolutely ludicrous by those who might casually look in from the ‘normal’ world outside.
Just for the heck of it, we thought we’d relay a situation that occurred not long ago that demonstrates what we are talking about. In this case perhaps a little history might help in terms of helping you appreciate the kind of nonsense we have to deal with to be able to do what we love to do on an ongoing basis. For a lot of folks, the fact that the theme centers on Australian wine makes it less relevant since OZ isn’t currently a particularly hot wine topic. But trust us this kind of silliness is not confined to any particular genre or category. It is simply how twisted things are.
It really starts back in the 1980s as Winex was expanding in all directions categorically with no restraints other than the wine had to be good and the price had to make sense (kind of the same as it is now). As a result of open-minded experimentation, Winex was an early player with labels like Rosemount and Penfolds, showcasing them as viable value reds and worthy of consideration. We even found opportunities to buy closeouts from a purveyor on Penfolds 389 and even higher end fare like Grange Hermitage.
A few years later, we decided to expand and become more involved in a number of different avenues with respect to Aussie wine. It stemmed from Kyle’s inspiration from a book called Rhone Renaissance written by Remington Norman. Besides detailing a “who’s who” list of producers in the Rhone Valley, Norman went on to talk about emerging producers here in America and spent a good bit of print talking about boutique producers in Australia, few of which were known here in the states. On his way back from the London Wine Fair one year, Kyle spied a bottle of Charles Melton’s ‘Chateauneuf’ blend called Nine Popes in the duty-free store. This was one of the legends that Norman had spoke of in the work, and Kyle grabbed a bottle to bring back to taste.
Think of the movie The Jerk when Navin Johnson heard the big band music on the radio and exclaimed “if this is out there, what else is out there!?”. That’s how we dove into a program of pioneering ‘boutique’ Australian wines, being among the first in the U.S. to proffer such labels as Clarendon Hills, Torbreck, Rockford, and Three Rivers. There were multiple trips to Australia over the next decade including to Penfolds. As a matter of fact, Kyle visited Penfolds again last year as a member of a small, select group of retailers and restaurants sponsored by Wine Australia. Wine Exchange was recognized as a major catalyst in the development of Australian wines in the USA, and the purpose of the trip was to ascertain what the climate was for Australian wines at present in our domestic market.
Actually Kyle interviewed Peter Gago, Penfold’s esteemed head winemaker, for one of our ‘Extract’ videos as well. Given the relationship of Winex with Australian wine in general, and the fact that Kyle had been with Peter Gago on more than one occasion, it made perfect sense from the importer’s point of view to put a familiar face in front of the visiting dignitary. Not to boast but we were on a very short list.
Without sounding too much like a native Angeleno, the Winex principals were one of two entities invited to slug it up the freeway on a weekday to have a special ‘sitdown’ with Mr. Gago during his visit (the 101 Freeway is lovely that time of day). As an incentive for doing this, Winex was ‘promised’ the option to purchase Penfolds Grange by the ‘powers that be’, which would currently sell for over $750 per bottle at a very aggressive retail price.
Grange has been a bit of a scramble to obtain because the Penfolds label in general has caught fire in the Asian market, causing a healthy grey market. Many of the serious Penfolds bottlings that come here actually go right out the back door of a receiving establishment and onto a container to the Far East. This has pushed prices up several fold and changed the face of the brand in the marketplace, though none of the purveyors are particularly keen to admit that any of this is happening. In the end, however, none of that is our problem.
Our only concern was to get the bottles we were promised so that we could offer them out to interested customers (which we have in part thanks to our long-standing history with the Penfolds wines dating back nearly three decades).
What happened next was sadly predictable. Our sales rep for the company noted that some Penfolds Grange had arrived in inventory and asked us if we would like our order. We said, “Sure.” Two days later we asked the rep where the Penfolds Grange was as it had not arrived as yet and the company was literally just up the road. We were summarily informed that someone in the ‘chain of command’ killed the order because that particular shipment was earmarked for restaurants.
So here we are, offering to buy the wine that we were promised, with the wine itself showing as available and in stock, and us blowing an afternoon in Hollywood complete with a two hour ‘tour’ home and they wouldn’t sell us the wine because…
…it was saved for restaurants? Which restaurants? Italian restaurants that usually feature Italian wines? French restaurants that typically feature French wines? Spanish? Asian? Mexican? Maybe some kind of theme place…buy a hideously expensive bottle of Shiraz (probably at $2000 on a list) and get a free ‘bloomin’ onion’?
It is pretty hard to figure what kind of restaurant operation would be actively searching for a wine that would hit their list at that kind of pricing and from a genre that is currently not en vogue in American circles. It was also made clear to us that the taco stand down the street with a restaurant license could order and receive said wine even though no one from that establishment had ever bought any Australian wine. Ever.
We don’t blame Peter Gago. He is a heck of a winemaker and we’re pretty sure it wasn’t his idea to schlep around the U.S. to have these meetings. We suspect it was some ill-forged corporate marketing scheme, putting him on the road to press the flesh and then incentivizing us to make the drive so he got the impression the trip was worthwhile. Ya gotta love corporate thinking. But in the end, after all this has happened, why not just sell us the wine so everyone can get on with their lives? Why go through this pointless dance of saying that pile of wine that is sitting there is for as yet to be determined ‘restaurant accounts’ and we have to wait for our wine that is coming in the next pile?
Is this an isolated incident? Sadly, no. As a matter of fact this kind of thing, particularly the whole ‘restaurants get first dibs thing’, happens with painful regularity. Meanwhile, we see that the ‘saved inventories’ hardly deplete at all over time. It is harder to get things done than it should be far too often in the wine business. The people who perpetrate this kind of nonsense usually do so in anonymity or from a safe distance so they don’t have to explain the ‘logic’ of their actions to potentially hostile customers. They send the reps in to face the music.
The thing is that these unidentified people, who routinely engage in some of the most indefensible and idiotic practices on the planet, eventually leave their cubicles and go home. They walk among you. They could be sitting next to you in a restaurant or at your kid’s soccer game. You have to be concerned that such people might be forced to make some sort of decision in your proximity that might affect you in some way, though typically it is pointless corporate posturing. If they can accept the kind of nonsense we just described, or maybe even buy into it, what else might they be capable of?
In the end, we (and you) can benefit from this kind of nonsense. Much of the time these entities do such a good job of ‘protecting’ and ‘allocating’ the brand that they don’t actually sell anything. Suddenly they realize they need to stop the nonsense and move things quickly and maybe even cut a deal. That’s where we come in. We like deals. We eventually did get our 15 bottles of Grange. But why did it have to be so difficult in the meantime? Especially since we helped them by showing our faces at their little soiree. That is the question.