We just republished a piece we did more than a year ago that we called ‘score wars’ that spoke of our concerns as merchants about how more reviewers were tossing more and bigger scores into the collective well and how that might adversely affect the public psyche moving forward. In other pieces we have tried to present balanced views of what a ‘score’ actually meant and how the process of evaluating wines en mass, as most of the writers do, can yield much different results than someone evaluating them one or two at a time.

We realize there is no perfect system. But the massive amounts of information that most of scribes have generated over the years is of definite benefit to the consumer in terms of education and guidance. We can still remember the days when most wine reviews came out in the local newspaper on a Thursday (usually as a part of a high-end lunch paid for by the purveyor) or as some adjunct list in a monthly non-wine publication (which were usually way too late for any real market relevance as many of the selections were long gone or blatantly commercial).

The current review environment that has served the industry and consumers reasonably well over the last couple of decades is however at something of a crossroads. Previously consumers had a narrower but more predictable group of reviewers to rely upon. There weren’t that many publications that had significant impact, and you knew the ‘players’.
Whether or not you agreed with, say, Robert Parker, you knew where he was coming from and could calibrate the information within your own tastes.

Nowadays there are many more voices hurling a wide and sometimes disparate range of scores. Also there are significantly greater numbers of wines coming to market, so the amount of information the consumer has to digest to be really informed is daunting. We can tell you this. A few years ago, we didn’t have to know when a publication was due to release a new report (though we usually did). The phones would tells us. Nowadays a publication coming out and causing the switchboard to light up are extremely rare. Why is that?

Granted a lot of publications have changed the personnel doing the reviews and there are more reviewers out there being quoted. That can certainly be numbing to the consumer, especially those that are just getting into it. We like to think we do a lot to parse that sea of info and present it in digestible nuggets. But there is so much. Also, thirty years ago a great friend and mentor told me that ‘great wine is like a bus…if you miss one another will be along.’ That has never been truer than right now. There is an astonishing amount of great wine out there now, and maybe the sense of urgency in light of that is ebbing a little.

We are still believers in the reviewer-based info simply because, for better or worse, you have a body of knowledge and a track record that provides a consistency. We are very specific when purveyors present us score that they show us in print. Far too many times the truth gets ‘lost in transmission’. In the end though, you find out who said it and can calibrate accordingly.

While we are still on board with reviews, however, there are some disturbing trends that could derail a publication’s relevance, particularly with new consumers. Elitism seems to be growing among the ranks of reviewers, particularly if you believe as we do that they are beholden to their subscribers. It is bad enough that the same few labels always seem to come out on top, and they are usually the rarest and most expensive. But lately the ‘historic tasting’ is on the rise. Just who exactly is an article like “Drink Your Idols: Roumier’s Musigny 1976-2008” supposed to appeal to? It’s a small group to be sure.

Another review site has been a little slow on posting their reviews because they are spending a great amount of energy hawking their ‘glamorous’, globetrotting wine shows. No offense but we subscribed to get wine reviews, not to get sold on some other agenda. As Bill Belichick might say, “Do your job.”

In the ‘old days’ competitions and fairs were more relevant. But you don’t know who the people judging the competition are so the ‘findings’ are somehow less significant. However if the reviewer ‘system’ continues to degrade or collapses altogether, what will people do? As we look at the world around us, and the current proliferation of the ‘public forum’ for everything from doctors to mechanics to restaurants, the prospects are a little chilling.

Things like ‘Yelp’, while we have some personal misgivings about the system overall, can be useful in finding certain things. Auto mechanics, for one. Someone can tell if their car runs correctly or not. It’s something everybody has some experience with. Allowing for the fact that the ‘naysayer’ types will respond disproportionately, the public forum may provide useful information in making a decision.

But when the subject is less black and white, and more subjective, the public opinions provided must be taken with a few grains of salt. Like those judges at the country fair wine competition, you have no idea who the people posting on a restaurant on Yelp-like sites are or what their experience/expertise is. A guy could bag on a place just because he didn’t get a free dessert, or say it is ‘hideously expensive’ because he usually eats at Olive Garden.

For all of the reasons we named, and many more we didn’t get into, it is quite possible that the world of ‘wine reviewers’ might not resonate with the next generation. It may well cease to be highly relevant with the current one if things continue as is. Then what? Wine reviews in the public forum where anyone with a keyboard can anonymously pass judgement whether they are knowledgeable or not? Vinous Yelp? Oy!


In January of last year we put out this piece, but we think the message is still relevant as well as a background for a couple of things we will be generating as the next chapter of this ‘story’.

It wasn’t that long ago, in a place not so far away, that we expressed concern about what would happen to the wine world as the media continued to expand.  This was pretty much back when James Suckling left the Wine Spectator to set up his own shop, and our fear at the time was that there might be a certain rise in overall scoring as this new entity tried to garner a readership.  After all, it is axiomatic that consumers do not concern themselves with wines that get a B+ (89 point scores), so one of the ways to get your name in front of a new audience was to become more ‘quotable’.  How does one achieve that?  One way is to issue ‘enthusiastic’ scores on certain wines that would surely be quoted by those of us trying to sell said wine, which in turn would give a certain credibility to the reviewer.

Selling by third party endorsement became a growing industry tool back in the late 1980s as certain wine media sources, mainly the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, made inroads into consumer wine awareness by virtue of their easy to digest 100 point scales.  Yes there were words, too.  But the familiarity of the general populace with number grading because most experienced it in school, and the quick evaluation a consumer could make just by quickly looking up a number, embedded the system in the collective wine psyche.

It didn’t help that most merchants were lazy and quick to adapt to someone else providing sales avenues via published reviews.  Using third-party press relieved them of the responsibility of actually doing their own work and removed their liability in actually giving their customers their own opinions.  This indemnification made the retail trade the writers’ biggest fans and the constant attention that the majority of retailers gave to third party reviews gave the media tremendous power.

Remembering back however, what was different back then was that the scores themselves seemed to have honest intention on the part of the media to give the consumer the appropriate perspective.  Back in the day, a 93 point score was a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, a 95 was a must have, and ‘88’ and ‘89’ were still viewed as positive prose for wines that were value priced.  There were shockwaves in the industry when Robert Parker issues his first ‘100-point’ score for a domestic wine, the 1985 Groth Cabernet Reserve.  Such scores were quite rare then.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and the value of individual scores gradually depreciated.  Sadly after the turn of the century, no matter how glowing the prose, a 90 point score barely elicited a response from buyers and ‘92’ became the new ‘90’ for value wines.   Giving a wine ‘89’ these days is like a witness protection program…no one will find the wine because they won’t look that for down the list.  All kidding aside, this is what we have observed behaviorally for a while now.  But the worst it seems is not over. 

Part of it has been predictable given the way the James Suckling site established itself.  Suddenly however there are a lot more ‘players’ competing for consumer attention.  Antonio Galloni worked for Wine Advocate, then left to set up shop on his own, subsequently purchasing Stephan Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and incorporating that writing team into the fold.  Most recently he hired away the Advocate Bordeaux specialist Neal Martin.

Jeb Dunnuck was brought on to Wine Advocate to focus on Rhones and then got other responsibilities on the domestic front.  Jeb left to set up his own service (or more correctly re-setup as he had his own service prior to his engagement with Wine Advocate), knowing full well that his own service would benefit from his exposure with wine’s most influential review source.  He just recently kicked off his own program.  Given the ‘defections’ and the fact that Robert Parker himself has greatly scaled back his post-sale involvement, editor Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW expanded her role in the Wine Advocate review writing.

So where are we now?  Well it is fair to say that previously there were two main review services being followed, 2.5 if you count the respected but not always ‘quotable’ Tanzer publication.  Now there are five that directly resulted from the initial two and a number of others that are at varied stages ‘market penetration’, but arguably have much less clout.  There are likely some ‘startups’ we haven’t even run across yet that are U.S. based.   All of them have plans to become, or in some cases retain a powerful voice among wine consumers.  Sadly, it appears that another dangerous score escalation may be in the offing.  It has been coming for a while.

A few years back, after the sale of the Advocate, Robert Parker did a ‘second look piece’ on 2002s from Napa Valley.  Now here was one of the most powerful critics of any kind, someone who had been generally judicious in handing out triple digit reviews (with the possible exception of elite Bordeaux and Guigal and Chapoutier  speicalty bottlings).  But in this particular issue in June, 2012, in one section, ‘The Bob’ handed out nineteen 100 point scores!  Now granted, one could argue that this was the beginning of Parker’s ‘farewell tour’ after a storied career and he was making friends.  One could also point to the lineup (Abreu, Harlan, Sloan, Schrader) as the Napa Cabernet version of the ’27 Yankees. So what’s a few 100s among friends.  That was unprecedented at the time and we saw it as a departure from the conscientiousness of Advocate’s prior history.

But it is what has been happening recently, with reviewers operating in new positions or trying to establish new services, really has us concerned.  Lisa Perotti-Brown’s first significant foray into the Napa Valley generated fifteen 100-point final scores and 32 that were either 99 or had a range score that touched perfection (98-100).  Perhaps a little surprising to some is that three Chardonnays were awarded triple digits.  Pretty rarified stuff.

Not to be outdone, there was plenty of firepower to Jeb Dunnuck’s opening report of the Napa Valley.  Now one of Robert Parker’s strengths was his enthusiasm which he could convey through the written word.  Jeb showed plenty of numerical excitement in his inaugural work, handing out no less than 31 ‘100s’ and a good slug of ‘99s’ (21 actually).   Thirty one ‘perfect’ wines?  In a single category? Really? Someone used the term ‘jumping the shark’ for this opening salvo/love fest.  More important, if the perfect score becomes commonplace, it also will seem less special and have less impact, not to mention how it undermines all of those poor souls that only got ‘96’ which, ‘back in the day’, was a very good review. 

We could make a few, albeit less sensational examples to illustrate what we are talking about with respect to the current round of ‘score wars’, but it’s the overall impact that is the problem.  With more publications slinging around more 100s and other lofty marks, perspective goes out the window.  The consumer will start getting confused, even numbed (a number of the trade already have), and sensationalism will rule the day.  With so many more items pushed up against that finite ceiling (since you can’t have more than 100 points) separation becomes much less clear and it all starts to lose meaning. 

In the end, if this proliferation of over the moon scoring continues, where does it end?  People thinking the only way to get a decent bottle of wine is to pay $300-500 on somebody’s mailing list? Does ‘95’ become the new ‘89’?

Is there really that much perfection in the world or are all these writers trying to win friends and influence the marketplace for their own agenda?  It’s hard to say but it is clear we are entering dangerous territory. 

These publications are supposedly designed to help consumers sort through the myriad of wine choices out there.  Passing out big scores like Halloween candy might get the writer ‘in big’ with the wine elite.  It might help Andy Beckstoffer charge even more for his grapes. But we fail to see how it helps the consumer very much, and they, my dear reviewers, are the ones that pay your bills.  If, for whatever reason, your audience stops listening, it’s nearly impossible to get them back.


This tale is being told to demonstrate a point.  As it is an ongoing saga to this day, there may well be additional chapters moving forward.  It isn’t exactly like Game of Thrones, though the recurring theme of the ‘Big Box Bullies’ could be likened to dragons in that they have changed the landscape in the wine industry forever.

The story of Eli Callaway is an intriguing one.  Before he created the golf business that still bears his name, he pioneered the Temecula area, for better or worse, as a wine designation.  Eli was a great promoter who knew how to use the media opportunities.  Somehow, he got the wines from his maverick north winery into a situation where one was served at an east coast function involving the English Royals.

From Callaway winery’s own website,”On July 9, 1976, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and his Royal Highness, The Prince Duke of Edinburgh,   toasted the President of the United States at a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.  The   only wine served at this bicentennial event honoring the Royal couple’s visit to this country, was Callaway’s  estate bottled 1974 White Riesling. Her Majesty, not known to be a wine drinker, requested a second glass!   This was the first time in U.S. viticultural history that a dry table wine from Southern California was chosen to   be served on the east coast at an international diplomatic event.”

You can bet Eli made sure the word got out and, given the slower, perhaps ‘longer shelf life’ way that news worked back then, it turned out to be kind of a big deal for Callaway from a market awareness perspective.  Eli also had his own team of sales people, most of whom, probably ‘coincidentally’, were attractive younger woman.  While that is not something one can point at today (or even mention), at the time it was a pretty clear marketing tool.  From our small store in Glendale back around 1980, Callaway was a very successful brand.  Then something else happened that we think changed Callaway’s (the winery) fortunes forever.

A ‘big box bully’, noting the success of that particular brand, came calling.  If memory serves the company was called ‘Price Club’ at the time (they merged with Costco in 1993).  Suddenly we began hearing from customers that they were seeing the wine at substantially lower prices at these outlets, and our sales (and we are sure the sales of a number of other stores and restaurants as well) pretty much dried up.  Eli got paid (this is Amercia, by gum) by selling the now higher volume Callaway winery to a liquor company.   But the brand, nor the wine itself, was never quite the same.

From there Eli moved off to golf club world dominance (it should be mentioned that famous golfer Bobby Jones was Eli’s mother’s cousin).  As to the Callaway wines, they went from a hot commodity to little more than a footnote, we believe as a consequence of selling big drops to big box stores at super low prices.  While the term ‘brand destroying’ was not used until later (and occasionally hurled at us), that is precisely what happened.   Sure the immediate sales were great.  But the groundwork and enthusiasm that built the brand in the first place went by the wayside.

Our message is “How much do you hear about Callaway any more?”  Their wines are virtually unseen out in the marketplace.  Why?  Because the small retailers and restaurants that helped build the brand felt betrayed when they were undercut and blindsided.  The die was cast and the same thing has been happening repeatedly ever since.   Wineries/wholesalers sell their souls for that big volume moment, but can suffer in the long run because they upset their market ecosystem making concessions to get that ‘big deal’.

Who cares?  It’s always about getting the lowest price, right?  Well yes and no.  It’s hard to explain.  We know a number of consumers aren’t going to get past that ‘always the lowest price’ thing. That’s fine. It has worked prety well for us over the years as well.  But we’re going to try to explain the sometimes delicate balance that is the wine business and how there can be long term, negative effects from that one-time blowout scenario because of the high and continued visibility at such venues.

First we’ll start with the fact that big box and chain operations do virtually no brand building.  They come along well after all of the hard work has been done and a brand is established and entice purveyors or wineries with eye popping volume in exchange for substantial price concessions.  The ‘BBBs’, as we will call them, then turn around offer the now popular brands at substantial discounts, enhancing their image but possibly doing harm to the wine’s perception in the marketplace.  It can be a big sale, but at what cost.

Because the suppliers are willing to exchange heavy price incentives for essentially unheard of volume from the ‘BBBs’, it becomes an untenable competitive situation for virtually everyone else. The ‘BBBS’ will then ride the brand for as long as it suits them and then say ‘see ya later’ when it doesn’t.  At that point the high volume goes away for the purveyors, and the brand itself will have a hard time finding any new, or old friends to ‘play with’ moving forward.   As with our dragons, it often becomes a ‘scorched earth’ situation

We could generate pages of specific examples of these things happening to a variety of brands through the years, but suffice it to say that it is a very regular occurrence these days.  What is more important is the typical aftermath.  The ‘BBBs’ make the deal, and run off all of the competition because they got such a significant price reduction from the supplier.  This usually happens at the height of the brands popularity, which is why the ‘BBBs’ came around in the first place.  Lots of boxes get sold and someone on the supplier’s team probably gets a big volume ‘bonus’. But the company made a substantially lower profit by offering the massive discount on the volume, and were faced with the aftermath of that decision of dealing with an ‘injured’ or possibly  ‘dead’ brand.

When the next vintage vintage comes along, there are far fewer places willing to carry whatever the affected brand was.  So the supplier may have had to  go back, hat in hand, to the ‘BBBs’ and have to be in a position to offer them an even better deal so they could maintain some semblance of volume.  Otherwise ‘numbers’ will go down, nobody gets a bonus, and the talking heads from the upper hierarchy at the supplier’s place will start to squawk.  It is as predictable as sunrise in a majority of cases.

The ‘bullies’ aren’t going to do anything to promote the brand.  That’s not what they do.  So the supplier must sell and pray that the brand enjoys similar success with them in ‘year 2’, if indeed they get a shot at ‘year 2’ at all.  If the ‘tarnished’ brand is not as successful, the ‘bullies’ will often cancel the orders they committed to with no fear of reprisal, leaving the supplier with pallets of specially cut ‘warehouse display’ cases and not a lot of options as to what to do with them except heavily discounting to others which piles on the destructive process even more.

Ultimately the brand will cease to be exciting to many of the same consumers who relished the original price markdown.  The brand will be considerably less viable in the marketplace after burning so many bridges among those who were supporters before.  The ‘BBBs’ will move on to another item from the ‘next victim’.  The faces change, but the cycle does not.  We’ll come back to this later on.



From time to time we may republish some of our op-ed work because it is a window into how we see wine and, with readerships constantly in flux, it’s hard to know who has seen what.

“Einstein coined the phrase, and gave a very complex explanation for the ‘theory of relatively’ and how that space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts.  If a bit of an arcane tangent, we have observed a similar relativity with wine.  It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the time/ space continuum, though the end results can depend on the bio-dynamic calendar and the barometric pressure on any given day.  What we are getting at is that we have observed a certain theory of relativity with respect to wines.

As we briefly mentioned earlier and in other pieces, how wines taste to you can be a varying experience based on a number of factors.  We are convinced that bio-dynamics can play a big part in the wine experience, an observation that has been confirmed on countless occasions.  For those not familiar with the bio-dynamic calendar, the basics are that there are four major aspects that are charted.  A day can be a ‘fruit’ day, ‘flower’ day, ‘leaf’ day, and ‘root’ day, with ‘fruit’ being the most conducive to tasting wine and each successive being a little less advantageous.

If it sounds like voodoo, that’s what we thought, too.  But time has taught us not to argue with Mother Nature.  Among those we know familiar with the concept of the biodynamic calendar, there are few that would dispute the validity. While we can’t explain the ‘vibes’, they are real.  There is also a pretty significant pattern with respect to barometric pressure, though because it is less ‘documented’ it is perhaps not as widely discussed.  In simple terms, wines can taste dramatically different when it’s bright, sunny, and clear outside and when it’s cloudy or even foggy.  Altitude?  Don’t even get us started.

All of these things add to the relativity of any tasting/drinking any wine at a given time, and can vary the experience of tasting same wine under different auspices.  Coupled with the fact that each bottle of the same wine might be slightly different anyway based on a host of factors (cork, age, storage, to name a few), the variation in experience can be rather extreme.  Yeah, we’re wine geeks and think about this kind of thing all the time.

Whacky as this may sound, our experience has taught us that this isn’t nonsense.  Variations in experience occur in relatively predictable patterns based on the phenomenon we have described. The same wine can taste vastly different on a ‘fruit day’ than on a ‘leaf day’, even within a relatively short time and for no other fathomable reason.  Also, we note that wines tend to under-perform when the air is heavier, as if they are affected by the barometric pressure.  Maybe it’s the wine, and maybe it’s the human.  Or a bit of both.  Or maybe we should just get out into the real world more often?

So every experience is to some extent affected by the individual bottle, the biodynamic aura, and the weather, not to mention your own frame of mind, palate experience within a given time frame, and perhaps even the amount of sleep you got the night before?  Yep.  But that’s not the end of it.  Now think about comparing notes with a friend, colleague, or that snotty sommelier at the wine bar.

There are different experiences based on a lot of things that you have no control over, both personally and in the big world around you.  You can have an entirely different opinion from someone else based on differences in palate experience and preference.  But also your ‘standard deviation’ is further increased/skewed by all those other factors we mentioned.  Person ‘A’ having ‘Wine A’ on a sunny, clear ‘fruit’ day can have a vastly different take away than the same person having the same wine on a foggy night that is in biodynamic ‘root’ mode.

Taking that all in, you have even more reason to question the review of a reviewer, particularly reviews on the lower side.  Today’s ‘87’ on a ‘leaf day’ where wines tend to lean a bit more savory in profile could be a 92 on a ‘fruit day’ from the same person because all the ‘good stuff’ is in array.  The ‘day’ doesn’t necessarily change what’s in the wine, only one’s perception of it.  Therein lays the relativity.

Too much to think about?  Yeah, we know.  We aren’t trying to scare anyone.  We’re just pointing out that a lot of factors are always in play that can affect the enjoyment of subjective things.  On a root day or a fruit day, one plus one still equals two.  But with the glass of Cabernet in your hand, it isn’t quite so black and white. “


For all the folks that stick their heads in the tasting area and say things to us like “I want your job” or “… must be nice” we like to offer up a little perspective every so often.  First off, don’t get us wrong, we love what we do.  We meet interesting, passionate people.  We get to try a lot of things most people won’t, and learn something every day.  Plus being in a wine shop is considerably safer than putting out oil rig fires, logging, or catching crab in the North Pacific.   We know that.

But for those that think all we sit around and do is taste First Growth Bordeaux, rare Grand Cru Burgundies, and limited production California Cabernets, it’s not the case.  In 40 years in the business, I don’t ever remember saying anything like ‘what ‘aia’ should we taste next…Sassicaia, Ornellaia, or Solaia.’  That simply isn’t our world.   But we do put our palates on the line every day to protect your table by finding the best wines and wine deals we can.

Fortunately there is very little bad wine in the world any more.  But there is an ocean of passable, insipid, or manipulated juice that someone is tasked with trying to sell us.  We could go on a rather extensive rant at this point about the appalling lack of professionalism that exists in the industry, but we will save that for another day.  Simply put, we love nothing better than finding that proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’.  But you have to sometimes go through a rather dreary haystack to find it.  Sometimes you go through that haystack and there isn’t a needle at all.   Sure, there are great days, but also a lot of not-so-great days.  But we have chosen the task of being a filter for our customers.

There are many ways to find wine, including traveling to large, far away comprehensive shows to see mass quantities of labels all together.  There are also brokers that work the ‘back side’ of the business, helping some producers who made some bad marketing decisions on the front side of the biz, to move out some juice.  This particular sample came from one of our more trusted ‘back door’ purveyors from whom we have gotten some pretty killer deals in the past.

All we are going to say about this wine in terms of identity is that it is a Paso Robles Zinfandel from a winery whose juice we have sold before.  As we always do, we didn’t look at any of the ‘stats’ before we tasted this wine.  We simply took a quick whiff and a sip to see if there was enough there to look deeper.  As it was, there was a curious combination of elevated acidity and volatile acidity, two aspects that are typically mutually exclusive.  So for curiosity’s sake, we did some light digging.

Wine chemistry can be pretty boring to most folks outside the cellar and it is not something we talk about in depth as a rule.  But in this case the chemistry was the story.  The label stated 16.9% alcohol by volume, which will be disturbing to some folks, especially considering there is a bit of leeway on that alcoholic statement by law (as much as 1.5%).  So now there is a possibility it could be pushing 18%! We have had wines with some pretty high alcohols that were balanced, but that is extreme.

Reading on, the stat sheet noted that there was still 1% residual sugar in the wine as well.  That means there could have been another .5% alcohol on top of the searing amount the was already there had it totally fermented (the yeasts that drive fermentation often die at these advanced levels of alcohol so they don’t finish the job).  These grapes must have been closer to raisins.

In cases of over-the-top ripeness there is a natural tendency for the acidity to drop precipitously.  A ballpark standard measurement for ph in red wines runs somewhere between 3.4 and 3.7.  At this level of ripeness, there could well have been a ‘4’ in that number naturally, presuming the wine didn’t collapse on itself altogether.  Odd enough at face value, this wine should have been goo, but curiously was not.   As we read further, we noted that the stated ph in this wine was closer to 3.1, more akin to a German Riesling than anything else.

This alcohol/acid balance does not occur naturally in nature, which suggests some mad science.  In most cases California winemakers would acidify the wine back to more appropriate levels by adding tartaric acid (yeah, they do that), maybe even add a little water.  It would take a pretty big tweak to get this wild thing back to normal levels, but given the finished ph the poor winemaker must have dropped the whole bag of tartaric into the vat.

There was still time to abort.  Sometimes the creativity in dealing with uncooperative fermentations can have remarkable consequences.  In effect, the whole ‘Prisoner’ saga started with an unfinished fermentation that was blended with other lots to create something unique that became a market sensation.  In this case, however, the winery chose instead to bottle this bizarre brew under their own label.

In the sell sheet we got, the claim was made that this wine had never been sold for under $38.  That is entirely possible as it isn’t far fetched to presume that this odd duck probably sold very little if at all!  There were places along the way where a different decision would have made this wine work in some manner.  But that didn’t happen.  Now, this scary ‘Frankenwine’ is on the selling block at a hugely reduced price.  Brokers will ultimately find a way to move this along.  Then it will be out there, somewhere, most likely in some sort of ‘wine club’ scenario where it all gets mailed out at once.  Be afraid.


The prevailing wisdom is that there are two things in life that are inevitable, death and taxes.  While we are not seeking to disturb anyone’s comfort zone (one has Donald Trump and Elon Musk for that already), there are a few other things that come to mind in the discussions of ‘absolutes’.  The ocean is always salty for example.  The whole gravity thing works pretty consistently as well.  You drop an apple, it hits the ground.   And, rosé Champagnes always cost a lot more.  Unlike the oceans and gravity, which have perfectly sound explanations, that last one doesn’t necessarily.

It all started with a presentation of one of our favorite larger Champagne houses, Bollinger.  As usual, we loved the Bollinger Special Cuvee.  We always have, but haven’t always carried it because the price point doesn’t always hit a logical spot vis-à-vis all of the other Champagnes that we carry.  Still, no faulting the juice.

At the same time we were presented Bollinger Rosé.  Curiously, though the two of us tasting that day have nearly seventy years in the wine business between us, but neither of us could remember ever tasting this particular bottling.  Sure we taste a lot of stuff, and can forget things.  But we rarely do, and when something is this good, you don’t forget it.

Intrigued, we looked at the ‘stats’.   The Special Cuvee was  60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier from vineyards of which over 85% were Grands and Premiers crus sites.   The Rosé is 62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 14% also from vineyards that are over 85% Grands and Premiers crus.  A percent or two difference in the blend but, otherwise, not a lot of evident separation points between the two bubblies…except one.  The Rosé has 5 to 6% still red wine added to provide its color.

The kicker is that we were interested in the Rosé as well as the Special Cuvee and inquired as to the price.  The cost of the pink version was 60% more!  How does the addition of a little still red wine cause the price to vault so precipitously?  Was that ‘still red wine’ some unnamed Grand Cru Burgundy?  We’re not bagging on ‘Bolly’ mind you.  This seems to be common practice throughout Champagne.  Those of you who have seen the super elite certainly have noted that the cost of the pink versions of, say, Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal are substantially higher than their already very costly ‘regular’ cuvees.  The practice is widespread.   The only question in our minds is ‘why?’

The first thing out of most vintners’ mouths is something about ‘rarity’.  But limited quantities don’t always justify extreme prices (see also Napa Valley).  I mean is still red wine that hard to come by that you couldn’t make more rosé?  Champagne is a big place.  So, then, is the rosé version of someone’s Champagne always better by comparison to that house’s go-to Brut?  Not in our experience.  In fact it is surprisingly close to a 50/50 proposition.

So what’s the deal?  It seems to be standard operating procedure in Champagne.  Is rosé Champagne worth so much more simply because it is ‘pink’?  Some aren’t even that pink!  The bottom line is that this is all baffling to us when we stop and think about it.  As a wine store, we spend a lot of time trying to educate folks on a wide variety of topics to try and explain why things look, taste or cost a certain way.  Here? We got nothing.

Maybe it’s just a case of a French region trying to pull ‘la lain’ over everyone’s ‘yeux’.  Hey, we love a good rosé Champagne as much as anyone.  We also understand the whole ‘perceived value’ thing.  We just aren’t ‘perceiving’ why we are expected to pay so much more for the genre.  Just sayin’…


**We have complained about many writers penchant to spend an inordinate amount of ink on wines that few people can afford and even fewer can get their hands on.  This does no service to the majority of their readers and effectively serves as a de facto sales arm of the wineries they praise.  The consumers actually suffer because the prose gives certain wineries the impetus to charge more because of the attention and other wineries to raise their prices because ‘if they can charge that much, so can we.’

**Not that we have to remind people around here that it is hot outside, but there are a few things that bear repeating with respect to wine practices.   People chill their white wines so the only issue is how they keep them cool.  Ice bucket is one solution, there are a number ‘keep cold’ devices on the market, and, if necessary, you can simply use a plastic ice pack in a bowl or a towel.  Sometimes whites here start too cold, but it is better than the alternative of being to warm where the wines definitely suffer from an enjoyment standpoint.

It is reds that are of greater concern.  The old adage of serving reds at room temperature envisions cold castles in English, not the back patio in southern California or Arizona in the summer.  Simply put, if red wine gets too warm, it doesn’t taste very good.  If you are pulling it out of a cellar, it will be the right temperature…for a while.  You need to think ahead and maybe set the red in a bucket of some kind with some plastic ice.  If it is too cold (it should be somewhere between 58 and 65 degrees ideally), it will warm up soon enough.  If it gets too warm, you can put it in the fridge, an ice bucket or in a wine sleeve.  But the idea is to prevent it from getting too warm in the first place.  Keep it cool.

If the red is stored in some non-temperature controlled scenario, don’t be afraid to cool it down by whatever means you have.  A half hour to 45 minutes in the fridge will work, or any of the other means we have mentioned (ice bucket, wine sleeve, etc.).  You pay good money for your wine but extreme temperatures might require a little extra effort to let that wine show at its best.

**Speaking of useless prose, it has been interesting to watch Advocate ex-patriot Neal Martin as he sets up shop at his new home at Vinous Media.   Now to be upfront, we have a pretty clear notion that ‘pay-for’ wine services should be devoted to looking at the scads of new releases on the marketplace and give the consumers who buy the service the kind of information that will help them sort it all out.

We have been hyper critical about most writers penchant for going out of their way to review wines that few consumers will ever see, let alone have the chance to buy.  That being said, Mr. Martin has taken that process to a new level.  Here is a sample of some of his ‘pearls of wisdom’ articles currently on the Vinous site.

In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887 – 2010

Looking Back To Go Forward: Lafite-Rothschild 1868 – 2015

1918 Bordeaux – 100 Years On

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

Mugneret-Gibourg: Ruchottes-Chambertin 1945 – 2014

Cellar Favorite: 1961 Latour-à-Pomerol

Bordeaux In Excelsis (featuring historic vintages of d’Yquem, Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild)

Bear in mind that we hold no ill will for Mr. Martin.  We’d love to get paid to crank out such ‘topical, timely’ pieces.  We just wonder what is the purpose of these articles?  Going into detail about such rare, eclectic, and expensive wines is intended to do…what exactly?  Give working data to a couple dozen collectors who might stumble across something at auction?  Deliver the message that he has tasted such wines and you likely haven’t?   This is a glowing example of the kind of high-handed stuff that turns people away from wine.

Thousands of people pay good money to get relevant information in a timely manner about wines on the market that they might try and enjoy.  Many are in it to learn more. If you asked them how much they cared about reading the guy’s notes on his three-star Michelin  dinner with a variety of one-of-a-kind bottles, we suspect the response would be pretty unenthusiastic.

This individual has even deemed himself a music critic and put his notes on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys and Heaven And Earth by Kamasi Washington on your wine website at no extra charge.  Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘bonus content’?  Thanks a bunch.

**You are going to hear this repeatedly within the context of a number of articles we are and will be doing over the next 2-3 years on individual wines…in certain areas of Europe, the 2016 vintage is one of the most remarkable we have tasted in our decades in the business, in some places possibly the greatest.

There have been many exceptional vintages over time to be sure, but we can’t remember one with this unique profile.  Yes the fruit is ripe and well meshed, the flavors true to their terroirs.  But the wines are rich and full of character yet light on their feet. There is a unique texture, one the Aussies call ‘slippery’, and perfectly proportioned acidity.

In many wine circles, a ‘great’ vintage is associated with size and density.  These wines have the requisite size and density, but it is wrapped in a sleek package with bright acidity so they are not heavy or ponderous. Perhaps more important, there is almost another ‘gear’ evident in the finish of the best examples that suggests that they have more to give, yet they are perfectly drinkable now thanks to their striking balance.

While there are fine examples from a variety of locales in Europe, we have found that most compelling and consistent areas are Bordeaux, the southern Rhone, and northern Italy (Piedmont and Tuscany).  We have had wines from these areas in this vintage that are at another level, so good that they border on ethereal and even approach transcending  their appellation.

We realize this prose is a little hard to grasp.  It’s hard for us, too, seeing as we have never encountered a vintage quite like this one to convey the message properly.  If there is an easy takeaway, it is that if you have any space in your cellar, or closet, or under your bed, you need to keep your eyes open over the next few months as the 2016s roll in and be ready to grab some of them.



When we started in this business, the impact of the media was much different.  There wasn’t a ‘guiding light’ kind of reviewer.  Mostly folks relied on scribes in the newspapers who wrote weekly columns, awards from various wine competitions, and there was a following among elite buyers in a small way for a couple of subscription writers.  Does anyone remember Robert Finigan?  Probably not anymore.  He was arguably the first one to get national attention for wine reviews, but the field was still pretty new at the time.

Back when the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was being reviewed, Finigan was in a position to make some waves as there was unusual consumer interest in the vintage.  Finigan, a traditionalist, was pretty convinced that the very ripe, somewhat atypical 1982s were an anomaly and would not stand the test of time.  By contrast, an emerging writer from Monkton, Maryland named Robert Parker went full gung ho on the 1982s and the market responded.

From that moment on Parker’s star rose dramatically among hardcore wine collectors and tastemakers.  He achieved a status that perhaps no reviewer in any other field ever had and likely ever will.  About the same time, a more lifestyle centric magazine called Wine Spectator, with reviews, articles, and pretty pictures, captured an even larger, if perhaps somewhat less zealous audience.  Suddenly these publications, aided by an industry that was all too willing to cut and paste reviews rather than do original work, became the defining voices in the wine industry.

While Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar captured a modest audience, it was Advocate and Spectator that had the majority of the attention for a couple of decades.   We always joked about what kind of panic would ensue if anything ever happened to Parker, and knowing that if all went well, he would eventually retire.  In the early days, Wine Spectator had only a handful of regular critics and Advocate was just Bob.  But as demand grew for wider coverage of more wines, both publications added reviewers to cover the workload.

But with many additional voices, there was perhaps a little bit of dilution in the power of the message.  There were a few folks that came and went because they didn’t fit in with their Wine Advocate roles, a couple were even a little controversial.  The turnover of writers had to affect some aspects of the readership loyalty, though the presence of Parker as the anchor kept a lot of that from becoming too problematic with Wine Advocate at the time.

As to Wine Spectator, things went pretty well for a long time.  Then lead writer for European wines James Suckling parted company with the magazine.  Their domestic specialist, known here as ‘Angry’ James Laube, started toughening up on scores.  Dishing out 91 point scores to $200 Napa Cabernets definitely made him less ‘quotable’ in the broad market.  It seems Spectator’s impact in the marketplace has abated a little.

That brings us to today.  Spectator still has wide distribution, but we’d suggest less impact than the glory days.  Their ex-patriot Suckling set up shop on his own.  Parker isn’t doing much for Advocate these days, and former reviewers Antonio Galloni and Jeb Dunnuck left to set up their own programs.  Galloni’s Vinous absorbed the Tanzer team and recently hired former Advocate Bordeaux and Burgundy reviewer Neal Martin.  With such a dramatic reshuffling of the scribes, and the changing faces of the former ‘powers’, one has to wonder where it goes from here.   That isn’t even taking into account the various other ‘wannabes’ that are vying for relevance.

Our point is that today’s field is crowded and it is hard to predict who, if anyone, will become the next ‘oracle’.  There are a half dozen review platforms that have some amount of clout, and a number of others who could emerge down the road (though we have our doubts).  The quirk of today’s market is that purveyors are trying to prolong the sell-by-reviews format that has been the widely practiced norm for at least the last quarter century.

Within that context, it is a proven fact that ’89s don’t sell wine’.  These days the same can be said for a lot of scores relative to certain price points.  A 91 might move a $12 wine, but won’t even register a blip for a $30 wine.  Therein lies the problem.  The purveyors know they need bigger ‘numbers’ to excite buyers and consumers, and have taken it upon themselves to present the best score possible without regard to the source.  People present us the reviews of 2nd and 3rd tier critics all the time (and all-too-often not accurately).

We know the difference and who is who.  But the average consumer seeing it on a sign in a store doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the hierarchy (if you can call it that) and many take the number at face value.  All too often wines are presented with floating reviews, which say a wine received a 95 point score but doesn’t cite where it came from.

Given all of this, the industry is concerned about how to reach the next generation of wine buyers.  The ‘score’ thing has worked well for a lot of people for a long time.  But will that continue?  Are reviewers going to have the same impact with millennials they did with baby boomers?  Our first guess is probably not.   Who knows what kind of dynamic will be the basis for information moving forward.  A hybrid of some current market trend-setter?  Some self-proclaimed hipster critic?  Yelp?

Then again, with hand held devices connected to world-wide internet 24/7, it would be easy to get information on a potential wine purchase from some review site in seconds.  So it is difficult to fathom the possibility that all of the critics websites will disappear.  These days, convenience matters, particularly for the most impatient of generations.  But whose reviews are they going to follow?  That is the question.  Who best speaks to the market in the post-Parker era?  What exactly is the wine market as defined today?

One might ask who we follow.  In truth, we don’t really follow anyone.  We’ll look into things based on reading articles because not everything comes to our door.  Then we’ll use whatever reviews we think will get people to try a wine we already liked and bought, provided those reviews come from sources we feel are legit.  It is important for us to associate with proven and reasonably well-followed review sources.  We aren’t inclined to quote the ‘scribe of the week’ simply because he/she gave the highest, most quotable number.  ‘Steve’s mom gave this 94 points’ isn’t going to resonate with anyone.   There may be critics out there that will be widely quoted down the road, once they have established themselves.   But for now we’ll focus on the half dozen or so that seem to be the most followed.

The working theory moving forward, as we have stated, is that the guys with the highest reviews will get quoted because the market responds to higher numbers, and therefore will receive more ‘reinforcement’ in the public eye.  Though these all represent relatively new independent voices, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnuck, and some of the Vinous crew, have historic connections with top sources.  So they have historic credibility as long as they don’t overdo it and give everything 100 points.  They will typically run somewhat higher scores (a point or two, say) because they are still trying to expand their audience, or maybe they really are that much more excited.  Enthusiasm sells.  Just saying everything is ‘pretty good’ or ‘just OK’ won’t motivate anyone to act, or more importantly acquire.

For that reason we see the current Spectator ‘tough guy’ approach as being counter-productive in the broad sense with respect to wine reviews, though there will be an audience for their travel, food, and “People Magazine” portions of the publication.  Page after page of middling scores (by today’s standards) will cause consumer’s eyes to glaze over.

The Advocate has been something of a revolving door having lost two top reviewers who created their own sites, and another that went to work for one of the competition.  Will the new crew catch on?  Hard to say at this point.  It is probably still their game to lose, but we can’t see where a bunch of folks that the public doesn’t know as well, talking up mainly wines that no one can find or afford, as a recipe for long term success.

When we mine some positive prose from those publications, there is interest in the individual wines.  But we used to know when a new edition of those publications came out because the phones rang off the hook.  That has not been the case in recent years.  The point is that, when we present a wine with a review from one of those sources we mentioned, there is usually some response.  But we aren’t sure how many people are reading these publications on their own and reacting from that research any more.

There is more great wine out there now than at any time we can remember.  With so many things to evaluate one has to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to critics’ sites and publications to sort it all out.  Maybe they are.  But the impact of the reviewer has certainly changed over the past dozen years.  Is it because there are too many critics, reducing the impact of each one?  Whose reviews will reign supreme?  Is it because the industry has gone overboard in presenting reviews to sell wine so that most consumers feel they are getting all the info they need?  Or is this format going the way of the VCR and experiencing a decline in popularity with the next generation?  After all, how many of the younger crowd cares about 20-year drinking windows?  Most of it gets consumed in a week.

This aspect of the wine business, which has driven the market over the last couple of decades, is in flux right now.  Honestly, it could go any number of ways.  Among critics, sadly, we feel the high scorers will win as long as the ‘number’ takes precedent over the meat of the write-up.   The ‘number’ is the quick answer in a world where faster is better. We have lived largely in the world of review-driven sales.  While the ‘players’ may change,  we believe the role of the critic will remain significant at least until a better way comes along.  We can’t envision what that would be.  The 100-point system didn’t dominate wine marketing, until it did.  Arguably the success can be tied loosely to the system of education most people grew up and are familiar with.  But the fact remains that it is an easy, quick format for people to digest.

Possibly the industry could take charge of their own business and try to educate consumers through their own articles, tastings and one-on-one dialogue.  Maybe there are unicorns, too.  We have always presented our own ideas, sometimes without any reference to third party opinions. But the number system has created a life all its own for the time being.   As to more of the industry taking the ‘bull by the horns’, we aren’t going to hold our breath.  Telling someone they should buy a wine because ‘so-and-so gave it 95 points’ is still so… much… easier.  We’ll wait and see whose ‘95’ moves the needle the most as time passes.







You hear that a lot out in the advertising world.   Everybody wants to sound accommodating and consumer friendly, like they are anxious to fill the varied needs of a diverse public.  It all sounds peachy when you hear the ads but perhaps doesn’t always translate to the real world.  It’s easy for the corporate heads to advertise that they have a ‘liberal return policy’ when they aren’t going to be the ones standing in line for 30-40 minutes while the lone person in the return department is on break.  Promising something is one thing, how (or if) those promises are met is quite another.

Most outlets can’t handle a lot of requests that are outside the carefully put together order sheets that the employees have to work with.  We have seen the panic on the face of operatives when the ‘special requests’ don’t fit into the prescribed ‘boxes’.   Granted it isn’t rocket science to grill someone’s onions for their burger instead of put them on raw.  Obviously with certain types of furniture these days, everything is ‘special order’.  Rather one must select not only the style of the couch but the size, upholstery, and complementary pieces.   The point is that, when you hear about some outlets’ claims about, well, anything, you have to take them with the proverbial grain of salt.  Their interpretation of what constitutes ‘fulfillment’ of the promise can vary greatly from yours.

We have always prided ourselves in trying to be as close to ‘literal’ as possible.  In other words, when we say ‘special orders don’t upset us’, we mean it.  That being said, however, we must also point out that there are parameters to the promise.  First, if we’re going to go out and try and find something that is outside our normal, albeit very expansive and occasionally esoteric routine, there are a few things that sort of override the process.  Everything is determined by the amount of effort needed to complete the task, and the size of the task.

There are plenty of factors that play into the fulfillment equation and, for the sake of perspective and full disclosure, we thought it might be informative to understand what some of those factors are.  Now bear in mind virtually everyone in our industry has to go through some form of the same process.  We’re just being up front about it.  So, say you come to us with a special order for something, the key parts of the process go something like this…

PRICE: Of course most of these conversations start with ‘can you get this wine?’ and ‘how much will it cost?’   Even though it doesn’t sound particularly difficult, answering those two simple questions can be unbelievably daunting.  First of all, to quote a price means we have to find a cost, which means we have to find someone who sells the wine.  That is easier said than done.  There are thousands of producers in California alone, let alone all of the other places that produce wine in the world.  There are far more labels out there than most folks realize and new ones all the time.  Even with as much experience as we have, the information required to be able to answer those two simple questions for all of the wines in the world is impossible.

There isn’t a single source reference for all brands.  We can’t just pull out the ‘Great Book of Wine’ and get the answer.  Such an all-encompassing source simply does not exist for even all of the wines that are sold within California.  Purveyors can be region specific as well, meaning for example that a wine might be sold in northern California but not in southern California.  Sometimes associating a particular brand with certain source can be next to impossible.

If you had the wine in another city, or another country, that will make the process that much harder because sometimes that wine you had doesn’t even come to California or reside with any source whatsoever within the state, or sometimes even the country.  So we wouldn’t be able to simply order it even if we could find it.  The process would be much more complicated even if we could find it in the first place.

PHYSICAL ACQUISITION:  Every borderline you cross, be it state or international, adds to the difficulty of the process of acquisition.  There are paperwork, licensing, and shipping issues that have to be resolved presuming you actually find the wine to buy.  Some wines only exist in one place.  There are California wineries, for example, that produce wines for export or for restaurant chains or distributors in other states, that are specifically only for those entities.  You won’t find them anywhere else but those places (even though that same wine might exist under many other different labels) and never know the origins of the wine.

So let’s say we actually can find the wine you asked for via the ‘needle in a haystack’ process (sheer luck), in a quantity that makes business sense for us, and find a cost and be able to create a ‘landed’ price.  But, wait, how do we create that price?  There are also discounts, shipping quantity and dollar minimums, as well as potential U.S. and state taxes, just to name a few things that would have a direct effect on final pricing simply based on the logistical aspects.

Now we don’t mean to imply that everything is incredibly difficult.  Often we know the purveyor right away.  But if we don’t, it can sometimes take an hour or two just to find out who we are supposed to talk to.   There can be special promotional prices and other variables that can greatly affect the final sale numbers which are not evident until one has that conversation with the source.

The bottom line is that, truly, ‘special orders don’t upset us’. It is one of the many things we can do that large chain operations, big box stores, or grocers simply cannot do.  It is unlikely you will even find someone that knows what you are talking about in most outlets unless that item is very main stream.

You also won’t find many people that really understand the process in those other scenarios either.   The follow-up systems simply aren’t geared to accommodate the ordering and receiving of ‘special requests’.  We are pleased to be able to offer the service.  We can and will try.  But one needs to know going in that it can be an extremely difficult and time consuming process that may not ultimately make economic sense to anyone.

Sadly, all of this knowledge is both a blessing and a curse.  While we feel the need to impress upon people how difficult this process is behind the scene, we are doing so to make people aware of all of the pitfalls in doing this sort of thing.  Like that current pop hit ‘whatever it takes’, we are willing to ‘go the distance’ if the result makes sense from a business standpoint and we know what to do.

Unfortunately, the greatest cause for past consumer disappointments is something we absolutely have no control over.  There is usually a reason that people seek a particular wine that is not readily available.  It is because of their positive, possibly ‘aha!’ experience with that wine.  People sometimes don’t think about context and how it can affect the joy of the moment.

If you had some wine on your back porch and it struck you as tasty, that’s one thing.  Cases like that pretty much revolve around the wine.  But there are also occasions where the wine is associated with a grander experience, where the perception of the wine is augmented by the backdrop.  We learned long ago that, for some folks, the moment can be as important as the wine itself, and the perception of the wine is greatly colored by ‘other elements’.

So, like those drug ads on TV, we have a few disclaimers.  While we will do our best to ‘get the goods’, there are certain parts of the process that made a wine’s experience memorable that we cannot be responsible for.   Be aware that your enjoyment of the juice might well have had, at least in part, something to do with ‘the moment’.  As we have stated, in some cases it is difficult enough to simply procure the juice requested.  However we cannot guarantee your experience will be the same because we cannot presuppose or recreate the environment in which the moment occurred.  In all honestly, you probably can’t either because so many things come into play.

What are we getting at?  Well, an O.K. wine at the perfect moment will often shine greater than a great wine when you are in a bad mood.  Therefore, we will not assume any liability for the affect the food, the significant other, the company, the sunset, the ambience, any body of water, or any other non-wine aspect had that made that particular wine experience special.

So, in the end, ‘special orders really don’t upset us.’  We just need for people to realize that in some cases the task can be prohibitively difficult.  As for ‘the moment’…that’s on you.


In a recent Wine Spectator, we read yet another article about how “the battle over (consumer) shipping could rage for years to come.” Yeah, and the sky is blue, the ocean is salty, and the problems in the Middle East aren’t likely to get resolved soon either.  Duh.  Must be a slow news week.

For as long as we have been involved with the industry there has been substantial resistance to addressing some sort of national policy with regards to wine shipments direct to consumers.  Every state has its own unique set of rules regarding alcoholic beverages and doggedly clings to those tenets in the face of the growing awareness of life across state lines, brought to you by the internet.

The arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo never seem to change either.  The ‘talking heads’ consistently put forth that the problem with having ‘open borders’ has to do with tax collection and minors.  Our take is that those are the easy targets for politicians who are simply protecting a source of donations in the wholesalers who directly benefit from maintaining the status quo of a well-managed legal monopoly.

Alcoholic beverage companies operating within a ‘closed system’, without any real competition from outside of their borders, are in a position to make silly amounts of money simply because they have that virtual monopoly. If you think about it, they are not unlike the bootleggers that most of the curious alcohol laws were created to thwart in the post-Prohibition era.  The wholesalers and retailers within a given boundary ‘don’t want anybody muscling in on their territory’.

If this all sounds like the dialogue for some 1930s gangster drama, it kind of is.  But instead of ‘tommy guns’ to deal with intruders, it’s a state’s parochial legislation which will cost sometimes prohibitive sums of money for outsiders to fight.  This we know from both observation and experience.  No other business has to deal with this sort of minefield, though the internet age is creating similar issues regarding sales tax.  In all of this, however, no one seems to be particularly concerned with consumers .

The point is that the issue will never be resolved because those entrenched in the various markets will continue to fund the political machine to protect their interests.  You can debate the 21st Ammendment vs. the Commerce Clause all you want (the diametrically opposed legal precedents that give rise to a debate in the first place).  Those within the particular states have absolutely no interest in doing anything else but fighting to block competition, nor in all fairness should they.  They don’t give a damn about the consumers’ right to do anything except buy their stuff.  In many cases they don’t even do a very good job in offering the pricing, products and service that would remove the consumers need to look elsewhere .

We’re certainly not going to solidify the definitive argument today.  We don’t expect there is one.  The debate has been raging for as long as we have been doing this and shows no sign of tapering off.  The position of one state or another may change, the intensity of the political saber-rattling increases or ebbs, but the situation itself will always exist as you have one side of the equation with absolutely no reason to accept or work for any kind of change.

Our question here is a simple one.  The discussions of consumers’ right to buy alcoholic beverages across state lines have been voluminous, often very heated, and we expect will be ongoing. But, really, how much are we talking about here as a percentage of all alcoholic beverage sales?  All of the bar and restaurant business is local, and those bars and restaurants make up a huge portion of the wholesalers business.  There isn’t a huge incentive to buy spirits and beer across state lines, and the cost of transport plus the hassle would deter most buyers from doing it anyway.

That leaves wine.  How many wine buyers, as a percent of all wine buyers, care enough to reach out to other markets to acquire certain labels or genres.  We’re guessing that percentage of buyers looking to other markets to be infinitesimal as a percentage of the total buying population..

And why do these few consumers do it?  To save a couple of bucks?  Not on every day stuff.  The numbers, with the cost of transport figured in, don’t typically make sense.  In fact, from an acquisition perspective, only higher end purchases pencil out from a cost perspective.  So, really, you’ve got a few high-end buyers who can’t find what they want in their own environment that are venturing out to look elsewhere.  We’d suggest, if they could get the stuff locally at a fair price, a good many of them wouldn’t bother with the hassle and risk of shipping and this conversation wouldn’t be happening at all?

The only answer is that they can’t get what they want locally at a reasonable price.  More likely they can’t get it at all! So what are they supposed to do?  This kind of thing doesn’t happen in any other industry.  If I want to ship a couch from Maine to California, I can.  It may be crazy given the cost of shipping something as heavy as that couch, but the law doesn’t prevent it.  Yet the wine guy is supposed to just suck it up and buy local because of some arcane local law that was enacted 80 years ago?

The governments rail on about lost taxes.  Really?  How much are we talking about? We’d guess they’re getting all but the tiniest portion of the tax due because most of the market doesn’t care enough or have any motivation to step out.  The taxes the states  don’t get are because their market has failed to satisfy the needs of those few customers that do want another option.

To put it simplistically, these wholesalers and governments seem to be overly concerned with the one or two buyers out of every, say, 10,000 that feel that need to go to other markets to get what they want.   Hundreds of millions in tax revenues (or more) that are coming in give way to concerns about a few thousand bucks that aren’t?  The Spectator article mentions a couple of cases where a state attorney general has filed suit against out-of-state wine interests.  Don’t state attorney generals have much more important things to do?

Granted the whole shipping thing is probably perceived as a bigger problem today than it was twenty years ago.  But that is likely because there is more information available to the consumer regarding new wines and places to find wines that may be outside the state boundary.  We don’t expect that the internet is going anywhere, so there will always be access to tantalizing information regarding wines and wine prices for the consumer to take in.   But, sadly, the alcoholic beverage wholesaler, sitting in a truckload of money grousing about the few pennies he didn’t get and paying someone to ‘fix it’, isn’t going anywhere either.  Neither are the ‘squeaky wheels’ that will start the next cycle of this ongoing hysteria.  Does this make the whole discussion pointless?   Sadly, it does.