Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wine is not a grocery

During this turbulent economic meltdown, there are days when I wonder if this Republic that we live in was a bad idea after all. Then, something happens like the recent death of a proposal made by New York State’s governor in his budget, and I become convinced that it was a bad idea.

According to Crane’s New York Business, the proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores in New York is reportedly dead. The reporter claims that it was the state’s liquor lobby that effectively killed the proposed bill, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

New York State law forbids alcohol purveyors from paying for shelf space in grocery stores—it’s called ‘slotting’ and it’s how the soft drink industry gets prime real estate in front of the store.

Under the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) system in New York, slotting is considered a form of bribery and so alcohol purveyors are forbidden that marketing route (it’s difficult for me to understand why bribery is allowed in the food or any business other than alcohol, but that would be quibbling with legislators and their skewed sense of morality).

In any case, since beer is allowed in grocery stores, and beer is an alcohol product that comes under the watchful ABC eye, beer producers and distributors are not allowed the bribing privileges that soft drinks enjoy.

Why did you think beer is generally given the real estate in the back of the store?

Now, suppose wine was to be allowed in grocery stores. Where do you think wine would be shelved?

The grocers certainly aren’t going to give up prime and bribable real estate to alcohol, so if wine were sold in grocery stores in New York State, beer would likely have to give up some space to its rival product.

The beer lobby is powerful in New York—just the fact that beer is in grocery stores and wine is not might give you a clue as to how powerful. I suspect the combination of the liquor retailers and the beer lobby is what did in the proposal, with more emphasis from the latter.

Sadly, a few New York wineries went out on a limb to support the wine in grocery store concept. After voicing their support, these wineries received threats from liquor retailers and distributors that they would pay a price for their position in the matter. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that this is no idle threat.

Many years ago, as sales manager for a Finger Lakes winery, while on a visit with the sales manager of our distribution company, the owner of the distributorship directed me out of the building and then canceled our contract with his company because one of his moles in the government offices in Albany had leaked a letter that my boss wrote in favor of wine in grocery stores. (In a turn of justice, that distributor is out of business--it fell victim to the industry’s overall vicious tactics, when a larger company came into the New York turf and made a play for the whole field.)

Therefore, I worry over the fate of the few small wineries that are likely going to be blacklisted for taking a position, if not forever, at least for a while. But I worry even more about someone else.

Lost in the affairs of state budgets and lobbyists is that lowly, faceless, beaten into near servitude person known as ‘the consumer.’

I doubt that most New York legislators measured the desires of their consumer constituents. I doubt most New York legislators are aware that their constituents are consumers and not lobbyists. Further, I doubt that most New York legislators have a clue about the virtues or pitfalls inherent in many proposals that come to them, either by the governor or by their colleagues—they are too busy figuring out which group deserves payback, plus or minus!

Of all the adjectives one can apply to this large and beautiful state of New York, the ones that do not come easily to mind are: progressive, fair, and consumer or business friendly. This is among the most awkwardly backward modern states in the union, with a state government that reeks with quiet corruption.

When it comes to wine, general alcohol policy in New York State says little about our collective intelligence, but it speaks volumes about the symbiosis of money and governance.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Read the Label

My wife sometimes gets way ahead of me in the grocery store because I often linger too long trying to decipher the label on some grocery.

You’d be surprised the things I uncover by reading the label thoroughly and then checking USDA or FDA regulations.

Does ‘organic’ on the label tell us anything of value?

The answer depends on what we think 'organic' means more so than on what the packager knows it means.

Have you any idea how many different types of sugars are in foods?

More than you can imagine, I'm sure.

I particularly love the variety of ways in which food packagers allude to but never really back up health claims.

On the subject of health claims, let me digress quickly: it irks me that the food industry is allowed to make certain claims on labels, many of which are more a lesson in artful language than in real health benefits, but the wine industry isn’t allowed to even site a particular health study connected to wine, let alone make a claim.

The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury Department regulates wine labels. In some cases, TTB approved labels definitely impart information, some needing no or little research (like the vintage date on a label) but most needing some research (like the words Vinted and Bottled By) and others plainly misleading us (like the contents of the GOVERNMENT WARNING).

If I asked you what a vineyard designation on a wine label means, what would you answer? I’m talking about when the label particularly specifies that the grapes came from one particular vineyard.

Some might answer that the designation is a sign of quality, recognizing a particular grape grower or vineyard. Others might say it pinpoints a special vineyard either on the winery’s estate or that the winery has access to by contract or relationship with the grape grower. Still others might be under the impression that the vineyard designation is a regulated comment that tells us something important about the wine or the winery.

Oddly, each answer above is correct—and incorrect.

When a vineyard designation appears on a wine label of an Estate Bottled wine, it means that 100% of the grapes to produce that wine came from the winery’s estate or vineyards (Estate Bottled means that the entity that is named as the producer on the label grows all the grapes for and does all the production of that particular wine). When a vineyard designation appears on any label other than for an Estate Bottled wine, it means that 95% of the grapes for that wine came from the designated vineyard.

The above is the extent of the TTB vineyard designation regulation.

You might notice that there are no particular growing or quality requirements in the regulation for vineyard designation on a label.

If you ask a wine producer what the vineyard designation on his or her wine means, surely you’ll be told that it means that the vineyard consistently produces some sort of recognizable quality, and that’s a fine answer. But if you ask ten producers, you might get as many as ten different definitions of what defines ‘recognizable quality.’

Without codified parameters governing the designation, the practice of vineyard designation on wine labels can quickly and easily become just a marketing tool to lure the unsuspecting into thinking there’s something special about that wine.

I’m not saying that there is no reason for designating vineyards on wine labels. But it would be nice if what it is that makes any particular vineyard special is spelled out and universal.

What do you think it means when you read the words “For Sale Only In…” followed by the name of a state where the wine was produced?

You probably are on the wrong track.

Before they can be applied to bottles and distributed for sale, wine labels must be submitted to and approved by TTB, with one exception: a Certificate of Exemption from Label Approval can be requested if the wine will be sold within the State of production (and not outside of that State’s borders). This exemption allows flexibility concerning label regulations, such as the Appellation or the Vintage date, etc.

What this means in practice is that a winery, say, in Vermont that sources all its grapes from California, doesn’t have to tell us that on the label as long as the wine is never sold outside Vermont.Instead of the appellation, the winery can state "For Sale Only In Vermont."

This exemption can be used by wineries with second label products to sell. Their Estate Bottled wine is sold and distributed anywhere in the U.S. but their second label wine, sourced from outside their state, is sold at the tasting room and/or at retail only in that state. I see this situation right nearby my home in the Finger Lakes region.

I have no idea why the exemption is allowed, but those words on the label certainly don’t give the consumer much in the way of information. And it could turn into a negative for the winery—people could imagine that the winery is not confident enough in its wines to compete outside its home state.

Reading the label gets you someplace, but you have to know the regulations to understand how far you’ve been taken.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I’m finally reading Michael Pollan’s book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

All I can say is: WOW!

The book starts with corn, and shows how that kernel has managed to change the world of farming and of medicine, too, as in creating a host of problems like diabetes, overweight, et al.

It is a sad thing, but Pollan clearly lays out how cheap corn has ruined farmers while it’s created corporate winners, and has skewed what taxpayers think is a federal farm program but turns out to be a corporate welfare scam.

From corn Pollan takes us to beef, which is because corn has also ruined our beef supply. By explaining how cattle used to be raised, and then by tracing how they are raised today, he shows how corn has not only changed (for the worse) cattle raising but how it also has created the conditions for those e-coli and other strange outbreaks we keep reading about in the news.

I'm not even half way through the book! Yet, this morning I told my wife that I am never going to buy beef again. Actually, I don't eat much beef, but do grab a sirloin or hanger steak every so often. No more. I'll stick with that bison meat which is minimally processed and without antibiotics.

By the way, according to Pollan, corn is the reason cattle are pumped with have to read this book.

Still, because of my relatively poor upbringing, I have always held a reverence for food that prevents me from wasting or throwing any of it out. That’s why tonight I must eat that calve's liver I have in the refrigerator—for the last time.


Here’s how I’m going to fix the liver for two:

I’ll heat a cast iron pan on high heat, with just a drop or two of olive oil.

I’ll sprinkle some crushed white pepper on one side of two slices of calve's liver and dust with flour; then, do the same on the other sides.

The liver will then go into the cast iron pan to brown on both sides—just a minute on each side. I want the inside of the liver to remain close to uncooked. I'll remove the liver from the pan and set it to cool on a chopping board.

I’ll add some olive oil to the cast iron pan and turn down the heat to low. I’ll add a large, sweet chopped onion and cook it for a minute; then, add two cloves of thinly sliced garlic, and cook for another minute after which, I’ll pour in the pan a ½ cup of sweet wine (I use Madeira or Marsala) and let it cook down a little.

While waiting, I’ll strip thyme leaves from a few stalks and put them into the pan—then, I’ll turn to the liver and chop into small pieces.

Just before adding the liver to the onions, garlic, thyme and wine, I’ll add ¼ cup of chicken stock, plus five dashes of soy sauce from the bottle and five dashes of balsamic vinegar from the bottle, mix the liquid and taste—if I need more wine, soy or vinegar to meet my standard for a balance of the flavors, I’ll add whatever is required.

Next, the liver pieces go into the pan and everything is mixed up with the flour residue causing some thickening as the ingredients are stirred. I’ll cook it for about two minutes, constantly moving things around in there and then check one piece of liver to make sure it’s how I like it—on the rare side.

With this dish, I’ll drink perhaps a Sicilian Nero D’avolo or Cerasuolo di Vittoria or maybe a Chinon or Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc—depends on what’s in the cellar.

My side dish will likely be roasted potatoes sprinkled with pepper and thyme and a drizzle of olive oil, plus an arugula salad.

I’ll stop eating beef products—right after I prepare that hanger steak that I have in the freezer. It's the last beef product that I own.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What am I missing?

Not too long ago, there was a general uproar in New York over the potential loss of annual state funding to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation (NYWGF). It’s one area that the governor sees as a way to save budget money.

Most of the people who write about the issue talk about the valuable promotional needs that NYWGF meets regarding what many still view as a nascent New York wine industry. I wonder five things about this subject.

First, it’s been around since 1858; when will the New York wine industry be weaned from infancy?

Second, if a 151 year-old wine industry still needs to beg for attention in restaurants and at retailers, shouldn’t the promotional value be subject to stringent review?

Third, why do so many winery owners complain to me, personally, about what they view as its relative ineffectiveness, yet they take NYWGF money?

Fourth, why aren’t the defenders talking more about NYWGF funded research programs?

Fifth, I wonder how many of the politicians, journalists, and bloggers who write about the subject know that the NYWGF was originally established in 1985 with state funding as seed money?

The state fully funded NYWGF to get it started and then, over the course of three to five years, wine and grape industry money was supposed to gradually increase until NYWGF was fully funded by the industry. Of course, this never happened.

The industry either could not or would not fund itself, but should the industry expect an endless largesse of politicians handling taxpayer money?

The funny part, to me, is to read the pompous pandering populism on this issue that one supposed fiscally conservative state senator has blanketed in newspapers in his district, which happens to include the Finger Lakes wine industry. He’s shameless.

I have a sixth question but it is arguably related to the NYWGF. It involves one major (I think) donator to the organization: Constellation Brands, based in Canandaigua, New York.

Constellation is the largest wine holding company in the world (or maybe it isn’t; I don’t keep up on such things). Anyway, under its international wing, Constellation includes its founding winery, the Canandaigua Wine Company and all the holdings of that company, which until recently included the once mighty Taylor brand, Widmer, and Gold Seal.

A few weeks ago, Canandaigua canceled all local vineyard operations in the Finger Lakes—now that’s showing support for the wine industry. And I hear that it offed the Gold Seal brand, but I haven’t confirmed that one.

NY starves for money and threatens the unthinkable to many—cut off funding for promotion and research—while the largest wine company on the planet, which is based in NY, and which supports the organization that needs the funding, can’t find a way to make Finger Lakes vineyards pay off.

I really don’t think I’m as dumb as this situation makes me feel. Somebody, anybody, please tell me what I am missing about all this.

One more thing: The governor still wants to gain some revenue by allowing wine sales in grocery stores. The protected retailers and distributors are of course unhappy about the plan. Yet, their complaints thus far have been rather lame. To prove the emptiness of their claims, they have started with the old “it will increase under age drinking” argument—the last vestige of a specious campaign.

I’ve read the arguments pro and con, and the one thing that seems to be lacking from the debate: the consumer. Access to wine in grocery stores is good for the consumer and long overdue in New York. Every other consideration is merely fatuous positioning.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2009. All rights reserved.