Message from the Retailer
By Sunny Brown
Grrr. We have all been there at some point. Some obstacle lay between us and that coveted bottle of wine. Sometimes it is availability. Certainly an acceptable reason, since many of the most highly sought after wines are produced in tiny amounts. But what about other obstacles such as faulty corks, poor information at your local wine shop or prices on a restaurant list that even Paul Allen couldn’t justify?
The path to a great bottle of wine is fraught with pitfalls and bear traps, with fault lying on all ends of the industry. What follows is a list of complaints that I have compiled while running a retail wine shop and wine bar. We offer this as constructive criticism in an effort to improve the accessibility, price and quality of the wine we all enjoy. Our next feature will offer views from the wholesaler and wine maker/importer.
From the Retailer and Restaurateur
A Message to the Consumer
We can’t have them all
The best wines in the world are made in small amounts yet desired by many. It is a simple equation of supply and demand. The result: Not all wines will be available. This is unfortunate, as any retailer would love to sell that bottle of wine and make the customer happy. Remember, we can only get what the supplier has to offer.
Conversely, there are far too many wines out there to have all of them available on any wine list or at any retail outlet. I put the estimate conservatively at about 200,000 labels in any given large metropolitan market, and the number grows by leaps and bounds every day. Wine shops and lists can be daunting enough while offering only a fraction of that number. Could you imagine if they offered everything? Overwhelming would be an understatement, and too many great bottles of wine would get lost on shelves, surrounded by mediocrity.
Wine Ratings are not Gospel
A wine that scores high in the Advocate, Spectator and even this website carries an instant measure of credibility, but the reality is that these scores are based on opinion, and I have tasted too many wines that received high scores that weren’t up to snuff. Vice versa for wines that were panned by the “experts” yet were wonderful bottles of wine. Who knows if the reviewer is having a bad day or has a head cold? The rumors abound concerning padded ratings for those wineries that advertise in certain publications. Take this how you will, but ultimately remember that any wine receiving an 80 score or above is considered a good wine, and far too much emphasis is placed upon the difference between a 92 and an 89. Most trained experts can’t tell the difference between the two, can you?
Negotiating a Price
The thought of this in a restaurant would be far fetched, but many consumers believe that the prices at a wine shop are negotiable. In some states there are mandated price minimums, which cannot be violated by law. In others the prices vary from store to store. If a store manager or owner is willing to negotiate the price on a bottle of wine, chance are good that the prices marked on the bottles are inflated in the first place. Know that because he/she cut you a break on one bottle they probably are making up the difference by overcharging you on the others.
In the information age we have the added opportunity of buying wine online. In many areas we can have that wine shipped directly to our door. A great resource to be sure, but because the wine was listed at $2 less a bottle online doesn’t mean that it will be a better deal. What are the shipping costs? What are the shipping conditions? Paying a couple of bucks more but knowing that the wine didn’t travel around in the back of a FedEx truck on a hot summer’s day can be cool comfort. What if the wine was corked, can you send it back? Developing a personal relationship with your local retailer can also take some of the guesswork out of wine purchases.
By the way, no matter what price Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator thinks the wine is sold for or should sell at, they have no influenece on state law. Deal with it. The $45 Parker has listed for the retail price of that wine has no affect on the actual price, and no matter how much jumping up and down you do about the price, state mandated minimums are just that. While this may lead to higher prices on some wines, it also leads to lower prices on many others. Don't like the prices? Buy online or write your congressperson. Giving a wine shop manager the third degree because The Spectator has that wine listed for $5 less a bottle is unsightly and unnecessary. It is in their best interest to give you the best price they can. If you do not believe they are you should shop elsewhere.
Wine is an Adventure
There will always be bottles of wine that you may have never tried, from regions that you have never heard of. An open mind is a necessity. Consuming the same wine, over and over, will some day get boring, not to mention that all wines go through changes from one year to the next. Your favorite this year may not be so with the next vintage. Refusing to sample something new will eliminate many wonderful wines from enjoyment, and isn’t enjoyment our reason for purchasing in the first place?
A Message to the Distributor/Wholesaler
Inconsistency and poor service will not win my heart
Seriously! You know who you are. You are that company that can’t get an order right to save your life. Out of five wines ordered one will be the correct item, one will be the wrong vintage, one will be the wrong vineyard and two will not come in at all. Wines go through vintage changes, yes, but what if I sold brake pads and I didn’t have what you ordered so I just sent you something else instead that is close to what you ordered?
From outlandish to laughable, prices in the high-end portion of the wine industry have spiraled upwards to a height few could have imagined. Call it the Bordeaux and Cali Cab syndrome. $250 for a California “Cult” Cabernet that has no track record, history or previous vintage as proof of quality? Because this brand-new winery’s marketing director feels that they can get $250 a bottle because the wine is made in an exact replica of an ancient Sumerian palace doesn’t mean that they should ask for it.
Bordeaux, I don’t even know where to start with you. Ch. Le Pin released at $1,200 a bottle and we are supposed to feel sorry for your financial crisis? Mouton makes 250,000 bottles a year and charges $350 per? The futures market is great for those who can buy on futures. For the many retailers who languish in states where purchasing on futures is illegal by the time the wine reaches the retailer so many people have had their hands in the cookie jar that already high prices are 30-50% higher.
At least Bordeaux fluctuates in price between the good vintages and the bad. Could you imagine a California winery dropping their prices by 25% because they had a crappy vintage? Hah! Well, they had their shot in 1998 and 2000, and except for a few mavericks out on the frontier it was status quo.
Wine Storage Conditions
Much hoopla is made at the winery about stainless steel tanks, cold-soak macerations and climate controlled fermentations, which are all well and good, but throw that wine in the back of a semi and send it out into the summer heat and what once was shall never be again. Alarmingly few distribution companies use climate-controlled warehouses or shipping. Some do, and they should lauded, but with a product that reacts so poorly to extremes of temperature, shouldn’t this be a given? You can’t tell me that bottle of 1986 Vosne-Romanee has been kept under cellar conditions since you received it in 1998.
I visited a well-known and respected distribution company's warehouse last summer. Let's just say I wasn't sure if it was hotter outside or in, and while many of their wines aren't in the warehouse long enough to do too much damage, do you really want to take that chance? Furthermore, should we have to? Perishable goods should always be kept in conditions that will ensure their quality. Why is it that produce is important enough to ship in climate controlled trucks but not wine? Last time I checked a case of lettuce was worth much less than a case of Burgundy.
A Message to the Winery/Importer
Brand Over-Development will get you thrown out of my store
The first time that a winery starts dabbling in wines that they have no business dabbling in is the last time that I view that line with complete respect. Experimentation I can dig. Throwing your name on a bottle of wine because your name carries weight and will sell that wine, no matter how cheaply it is made, or from grapes that couldn’t possibly grow in your soil, or how bad it is- well, you lost me at Bardolino. If you produce more than six different varietals how can you concentrate on any one?
Doug LaDue of Domaine LaDue out in Napa once told me that he hired a consultant winemaker to make his Pinot Noir because he “knew nothing about the grape.” Kudos for being honest and doing it right, and if you are going to do it, do it right.
Stop wasting my time
I understand that in sales the product needs to be thrown into the market, but I will pull my hair out the next time the national sales manager from Megacorp. Winery stops by just to say “hi,” yet he wants me to taste all 35 of his insipid and watery wonks and is willing to bury me under a mountain of propaganda and pictures of the cute little old folks that still tend the grapes out in the fields. Meanwhile, what he does not tell me is that the wines are produced in such vast amounts that Megacorp. sources fruit from all over that country and that the little old folks have no affect on the wine whatsoever. He also mistakenly leaves out the fact that the cute little old folks used to own the winery before Megacorp.’s parent company Gigantocorp. Brands undercut their market with their own mass-produced plonk forcing the cute little old folks to sell their life’s work. Now Gigantocorp. has spent so much money in building a giganto facility that inflation has gone through the roof and the cute little old folks are forced to work the fields just to survive.
Needless to say I have issues with this, or in general. You call it.
Stay true to your school
Please, whatever you do, Ms./Mr. International Winemaker, do not create wines for our market! The rest of the world thinks that Americans are pompous and overbearing, and that it is only a matter of time before everything is Americanized. Do not let wine fall into this category. Yes, we are a huge market and growing at breakneck speed, but where your true art and soul lies is in wine that tastes of your true heart and soul. Of wines that scream of location, of terroir. Of wines that have a sense of place. Some critics may give you high ratings for satisfying the big fruit, big wine, big whup category, but fads come and go, and history can be lost forever. Remember your roots, pun only slightly intended.
There you have it. One retailer’s opinion as to what needs to change in the wine industry. If anyone out there takes this personally, lighten up.
Part 3 will focus on problems from the Importer/Distributor's point of view.