In what is becoming as perennial an occurrence as spring’s shad run, Albany toys with passing legislation that would permit grocery stores to sell wine. I suspect, though I haven’t bothered to check, that similar movements take place in state legislatures other than New York’s, too.

At first blush, you’d probably think that such august bodies might be focusing on more important matters. Or, perhaps, you just think, so what? Well, as all of us living in the post-Watergate era should know, anytime our legislators legislate, and perhaps particularly when they threaten to legislate, there must be something going on.

In the case of to permit (or to continue to not permit) grocers to add wine bottles to their wares, there’s a lot more at stake than whether you might, if you live in New York, be able to drop a bottle of white and a bottle of red in your basket along with the dog food and toilet paper.

Most of the overt caring about this is being done by the most directly affected groups (not to mention their lobbyists). On the one side are the grocery stores. They range in size from the bodega down on the corner to the supersize ones, such as Whole Foods. They want to sell wine (they already sell beer) because wine is a much higher margin product than, for example, frozen peas.

On the other side are the wine retailers (who, by the way, in New York, aren’t allowed to sell beer; try and figure out the logic behind that segregationist policy). They, too, range in size from the mom & pop (also down on the corner) to the titans of the industry, like Morrell, Zachy’s and suburban big box outfits.

Obviously, they don’t want the added competition. Who would? The big grocery stores have big-time buying power, and while theoretically – actually, I mean by law – everyone gets the same price from the distributor (we call ourselves wholesalers in New York State), size does matter, and there are lots of ways that the bigger the buy, the better the buy is for the buyer. Which, of course, translates into higher and higher margins. Which, of course, means more profit.

I suspect that at their very heart of hearts, the big wine stores don’t much fear Whole Foods. After all, they, too, have buying power, not to mention a well-established expertise trafficking in the stuff.

This battle is really about the medium and little guys.

The hue and cry is that the minute the grocers can hawk wine, the neighborhood wine store will have to close because it simply won’t be able to compete on price. I think that this is both true and very much not true. And it also might be the best possible thing that could happen to the local wine store for consumers.

Actually, it’s far more not true than true for two reasons. First, they all can in fact get along. There’s plenty of business to go around. I know this is so because before moving to New York City, I lived in South Florida (I still shudder when I say that) for many years. Down there are the same types of wine stores we have up here. There are little ones, bigger ones, giant ones, hip ones, stodgy ones, good ones, mediocre ones, and on and on.

About 10 years ago, supermarkets decided to get into wine in a big way. Publix, a place where shopping is truly a pleasure (and one of the few things I actually miss about my Miami wilderness years), spent millions retrofitting entire aisles with wine and wine displays. But for the overhead fluorescent lights, you’d think you were in a proper wine store. Publix had it all. From Krug and Latour (really) to Yellow Tail and K-J, and just about everything in between.

Prices were, naturally, pretty good, too. Certainly cheaper than the mom & pop down the street. Or in many cases, the mom & pop in the same strip mall. What Publix didn’t offer with all that wine at all those good prices was a lot of help for the bewildered consumer pushing his/her cart down that multi-labeled aisle. I often took it upon myself to offer up my two cents if I happened to be standing next to a particularly desperate-looking soul.

I’m sure some smaller wine stores closed, though some no doubt would have regardless because, well, businesses close all the time. I can’t recall a single instance where one of the big wine stores, such as Crown or Sunset, had to shutter because of competition from Publix and Winn-Dixie.

You might see where this is headed.

Mom & pops, don’t try and sell your customers Yellow Tail. You won’t be able to compete on price with Whole Foods. By a long shot. If that type of wine is your bread and butter, you’re in very big trouble.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those wine stores that actually features lesser-known producers to begin with, you’ll be more than fine. Gristedes isn’t going to be looking to hand sell bottles of Finger Lakes Riesling.

Mom & pop will need to offer something that the big boxes can’t. Everyone-knows-your-name service is the way forward. Consumers like wine. There’s more well-made wine available now than at any time in history. But the vast majority of consumers can’t or won’t be bothered to sort their Fumé from their Fuissé.

Whole Foods won’t have enough “experts” running around to do this. Mom & pop do. Or should. Just as importantly, mom & pop need to order something other than Moët and Clicquot to sell.

If they don’t, they’ll be gone. And they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.



Or put another way, I've met thine enemy and he is thou, not Robert Parker. Though you wouldn't know it based on all the bad press this most influential of the influential wine critics gets and has gotten for a number of years now.

In books, movies, articles and blogs, Parker takes a beating. He's blamed for the "Parkerization" of wine, for the loss of sacred terroir in sacred regions. He's the cause of prices going sky high for anything he gives a 90 or above to in his publication, Wine Advocate. He birthed the cult wine category. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Of course, because he’s a public figure, he’s fair game. He’d probably agree with that. And I’m hardly one to defend anyone in the wine writer business because I was in that business. The stories I could tell you, but that’s for another day. My defense of Parker isn’t so much a defense as it is an end around.

We, not he, caused winemakers to Parkerize their wines. We, not he, nurtured the cult category by insisting that we had to have certain bottles because he said they were perfect or nearly so. We, not he, made runs on certain producers’ offerings that in their intensity and desperation might have made the bank runs of the Great Depression seem like strolls.

When I was a fledgling wine drinker, I read his books and subscribed to his newsletter. As I went from being a consumer to an expert myself, I paid less and less attention to his writing (as well as the writings of the other experts in the field) because I was usually on deadline or hunkered down tasting and rating wines myself.

Periodically, I would be asked to review one of his books for Wine News, the magazine I was executive editor of. In doing so, it always struck me that Parker was simply misunderstood. Like all of us, he likes what he likes. The difference is that his likes move markets, and even make markets in some instances.

If it’s true that the Parker palate prefers big, ripe, round, extracted, juicy, fat, luscious, Botero-esque wines, I think it’s also true that he calls a spade a spade. I’ve read enough of his stuff to know that he praises the humble as well as the highborn.

Parker’s crime is that we made him matter. We drank the Kool-Aid, and then came back at him expressing our indignation at what he did to us. Each level of the wine chain shares the blame.

It’s hard to say which came first. Was it the blindly devotional consumer who sprinted to his or her local wine store and demanded the latest batch of 90+ wines? Was it the lazy retailer who figured it’s far easier to make a sale with a little sign around the bottle trumpeting a Parker score than actually knowing what’s in that bottle and being able to coax a customer into trying something unknown? Or maybe it was the so-called experts (like me) who figured we too could matter if we started rendering numerical judgments enough times or in the right outlets. Or was it the nervous winemakers, farmers after all, who realized that if they didn’t go along, they wouldn’t be able to get along.

Doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, people want to be led, and there will always be someone willing to do the leading, whether that leader wants to lead or not.  






I’ll preface this by stating that I LOVE The Rare Wine Co. Unequivocally. Unabashedly. Unapologetically. That said, I cringe—or chuckle, depending on my mood—when I get my eight-page issue of the sales/newsletter every three weeks or so.

Not because the subject matter is of no interest to me; it is indeed, because I really like really good wine, and few retailers, be they of the cyber or brick-and-mortar variety, have a better collection on offer than Rare Wine. I’ve directed more than a few bucks its way over the years myself. And never once had buyer’s remorse, either.

And not because the news/sales letter is poorly configured, inartfully punctuated or replete with annoying typos. On the contrary, it’s pretty nice looking, has lots of what those of us who were editors would call “white space,” meaning it’s not cluttered with too many boxes, too much bling, or too much of anything, really.

Except, that is, a certain class of words meant to convey EMOTION, EXCLUSIVITY, BRILLIANCE. I suppose a little hyperbole never hurt anyone, and being in the business of sales myself (it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I am indeed a salesman!), if the person selling the something isn’t excited about that something, there’s no reason to think that someone else should be either.

All true, and Rare Wine, a Sonoma-based importer and web seller of wine, certainly isn’t the first or last or perhaps even worst merchant to employ puffery to make consumers want its wares. But Rare Wine is certainly among its most breathless practitioners.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s Bosquet des Papes’ “soaring classicism!” Agreed, Bosquet des Papes is a mighty fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape maker. I’ve had my share. But I have to say, I’ve never really “imagine[d] how th[o]se incredible wines will drink a decade from now!” Putting aside whether 2007 was indeed a “perfect vintage for their style of winemaking,” and whether the wines are in fact “extraordinary” in their “size” and their “richness,” I would have been willing to take a flyer on them anyway because they’re fine examples of Southern Rhône winemaking.

I think what makes me a little crazy about Rare Wine’s editorial style is that there seems to be no maximum number of superlatives that can be employed in any one sentence, story title or paragraph. And that goes for repeats of similar accolades within a single issue.

It’s hardly fair to one producer when by turning the page, another is accorded the same “mythical” status. How many “epic” wines can be touted in one issue?

Or how can one possibly decide between three wines from the same producer when one is “brilliant,” the next “exquisite” and the third “superb.” I know I couldn’t.

I suppose that if I were selling wines made from grapes grown in “magical” vineyards, such as several of the white Burgundies of J-P Fichet, it would be difficult not to lard my sales materials with superlatives about this “great” [emphasis in the original; after all, saying someone is “great” at what they do needs the italics to drive the point home] winemaker, whose handiwork can set off “fireworks” because it is that “electric.” For the record, Fichet’s wines are indeed lovely and worth trying. That is, if you like chardonnays that are understated and clean. Admittedly a disconnect between my opinion and the Rare Wine writer.

Perhaps I’m being a little hard on Rare Wine. Again, Rare Wine is a GREAT wine merchant. REALLY. If you don’t believe me, go to the website and look around ( I just bet they’d do just as much business if they simply explained what they were selling without exclamations and exhortations.

At least the writer of Rare Wine’s sales/newsletter doesn’t automatically laud the “passion” of every winemaker. The P-word is one, I think, that is best left to the bedroom realm (or whatever room one does one’s bedding in). Instead, it has become the default descriptor of choice by countless so-called wine writers. I know because I used to be one and the editor of many. I hate the word (which is perhaps a subject for another day) because it doesn’t mean anything anymore (assuming it ever did). And to you who might accuse me of inhabiting a glass apartment, I challenge you to Google me and find even one instance in the tens and tens of thousands of words I’ve had published where I use it. Other than to make fun of those who do, that is.

You see, all of that stuff, the “brilliance,” the “greatness,” the “stupendous,” the “epic,” “iconic,” “profound,” “legendary,” “mythical,” “magical,” the “stunning,” “surreal” and “stupendous” (if they can do repeats, so can I) is best be left to the eye of the beholder. You. After, of course, you’ve taken a swig or two and are ready to pass judgment.




The Who. The Kinks. The Yardbirds. Eric Clapton. Jeff Beck. Rod Stewart (long before he started singing about his perceived sexiness). Paul Butterfield. The Dave Clark Five.

As good as that invasion was, I'm not looking for another one of those. Besides, there already was another one in that vein in the mid-70s.

I ponder the coming of the next one whenever I'm in England (as I was just last week visiting my lovely wife's sister and her husband and three kids). We could stand to learn a lot from the Brits, something they're usually very willing to point out to us, usually politely, of course.

The two most important things, in no particular order, are queuing up at bus stops (or for anything, for that matter) rather than jostling for position or stepping in front of one another (remember what happened two Black Friday Christmas shopping kick-offs ago?) and drinking.

Obviously, we all know how to drink. And I'm certainly not suggesting that we, a nation of binge drinkers, need much more instruction in that regard, even from very skilled binge drinkers like the British. But what we could glean from all their years of tippling is how to leave our prejudices and fears of picking wines on any given night behind.

I touched on some of our ignorance in the post on screwcaps. Having lived in several very different wine markets in the United States, I have been able to form some very firm opinions on the subject of just what makes the American wine consumer tick. Not that there is "an" American wine consumer, something that was very, very hard for the Italian and Portuguese trade commissions to understand when I did a little consulting for them a number of years ago. That said, it's fair to say that most American wine drinkers are at least a little reluctant to venture toward unknown parts of the wine world. Coupled with this is usually about the same level of nerves concerning the area(s) that are "known."

There are oodles of reasons for this, many of which are simply a function of our limited history as a nation of wine drinkers (something, by the way, that we're really not; despite being on the cusp of taking the lead in worldwide wine consumption within the next few years, our per capita numbers are still miniscule). Rather than try and list them all and make us feel worse about ourselves, I'm hopeful that the British example will inspire us.

You see, the British are the world's greatest consumers of wine (they may also be for spirits and beer, but that's not my area of so-called expertise).

This isn't because of how much they consume. Or how much they know. In fact, I'm not so sure that the average British wine drinker knows that much more than our average consumer. But I do know that the British don't make their buying decisions on what the label looks like, how the bottle is closed, what country it's from or how many points Robert Parker gave it. Of course, there is some of all that there as there is everywhere, even in winedom's mothership, France (subject for another day: the French don't know practically ANYTHING about wine; and I'll prove it).

A bottle could be topped with a dirty rag, and the only analysis that will take place while confronting rows of wines at Marks & Spencer concerns whether the bottle provides good value for what it purports to be. That's it.

But of course, you say, that's the way we all do it. No it isn't.

It's no accident that just about every emerging wine country or region that has emerged did so first in the U.K. Or in a bit of a twist on that theme, thanks to a Brit.

Chile. Check. Australia. Check. South Africa. Check. Even our Golden State got a much-needed push into relevancy thanks to the now-famous Paris Tasting (see, it must be famous because it's in caps) of 1976 when a British wine merchant set out a bunch of glasses before some experts. In them, he poured a handful of California wines and Bordeaux and Burgundy. The two winners were from California.

I'm not suggesting that marketing doesn't matter to them. Only that for the most part, the buying choice is less about cute little critters or dirty words adorning the labels than it is the sense that he or she will be getting what they're paying for regardless of where it's from.

Maybe this is just an accident of location and history. After all, when you've spent that history on an island and much of it being at war with France, you're going to need some wine back up. And maybe springing from that is a matter-of-factness about wine in the British collective unconscious. It's not something to agonize over or even gush about (except, perhaps, on special occasions). It's just something pleasing to drink, and if it is to be so, it had better deliver.

It would drive me crazy if I were a producer, however, because there seems to be much less brand loyalty over there as there is here (take a bow, Madison Avenue). Whereas we would rather fight than switch, they're happy to move on if the relationship isn't working any longer. And when one moves on, one invariably ends up with hands wrapped around another bottle.

As a consequence, the British palate and palette are more expansive than ours. Not better. Just broader. And that's the point of all of this.

If you open your mouth in a different direction more often, your mind will surely follow.