Thursday, January 21, 2010

Byzantium to the 21st Century

Come April 2010, New York State appears ready to lurch from Byzantium into the 21st century.

That’s when the state's governor presents his new budget to the legislature, which manages to pass it on time once a century.

In any case, for the 2010 budget Governor Paterson has taken two bills, Assembly (A8632A) and Senate (S5787) together to construct a proposal that would allow wine sales alongside groceries in New York—and this time, it might pass.

When the governor tried this move last year, the state’s wine and spirits retailers organization was dead against the idea and any form of it, proving once again how entrenched regulated complacency can become. The organization didn’t even want to consider using the proposal to press its members’ needs and get a few things changed in the regulations, like allowing wine and spirits shops to sell groceries and beer, which they cannot do, and which wasn't in the governor's plan.

Another opening that the retailers let go by was the possibility of using their potential acquiescence as a bargaining chip to press the State Liquor Authority (SLA) to relax some of its Byzantine interpretations of the state’s alcohol control laws with the kind of rules that slap a fine on retailers who try to sell beautiful wine gift bags around the holidays (they can package wine in bags, but they can’t sell the bags).

One SLA interpretation forbids mom and pop retail stores from taking advantage of volume discounts by forming cooperative buying groups. That one rule may have been the most responsible for the steadily declining number of neighborhood shops and the rise of giant stores across the state. Or the SLA could have been forced to relax pricing and discounting filing requirements that are the basis of much under-the-table wheeling and dealing in the industry that no one likes to admit.

Other matters that the retailers could have used to press the SLA concern licensing hurdles like the rule that says before applying for a license to sell alcohol at retail the applicant must sign a lease or own the space planned for the store. So, while waiting for the retail license process to complete, which can take up to one year in New York, depending upon who contests the application and who needs to get paid off, the applicant pays rent on a vacant storefront.

There are so many similar and oppressive SLA rules that continuing would make this blog entry appear surreal.

Some of the above nonsense is addressed in the new proposal, the most sweeping of course is that wine and spirit shops would be allowed to sell food items and grocery stores would be allowed to add wine to their shelves (I don’t think, however, that beer will be allowed in wine and liquor shops—yet).

The second grand change on the list is in the way licenses will be issued. No more will you have to lease a space and pay rent on it while you await the Byzantines to stamp all the right documents. A temporary license will be issued pending approval for a real one. Plus, once issued, licenses will become commodities with value, modeled after the taxi medallion that in NY City can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

There are other proposed changes, many of which I have yet to dig into. It’s enough for now to know that the governor is proposing and this time the retailers seem to be getting on board. Perhaps someone did a seminar to persuade them not to be like Americans seem to be with regard to health care reform and say no against their own best interests just because things are the way they are and we are used to it.

With a few exceptions, the NY wine and grape industries have been on board. Those of us in the wine business in the 1980s felt that “change was gonna come.” We didn’t think it was going to take this long, but now that it appears to be on the horizon, it is cause for celebration.

Now, if the state could only do something about its dysfunctional political system as well as its oppressive and punitive property tax system, we might bring New York all the way through the 21st century—intact.

The new rules

Alcohol Control

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
January 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Truther" Than Strange.

The Location is the office of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

Craig Wolf’s secretary: “Sir, you have an invitation here to go to a tea party.”

Mr. Wolf: “Idiots. Why would they think I’d go to a non alcoholic party?”

Secretary: “It might be a good idea to see what they are up to.”

Mr. Wolf: “Hmm.”

Later that week at a tea party hosted by Sarah Palin’s publisher to sell books.

Ms. Palin addressing the throng: “So, you see my friends. Bein’ a rogue isn’t like bein’ smart or anything—I doan get accused o’ that, you betcha. No, friends. Bein’ a rogue means goin’ out there every day and doin’ what you do, you know, the way liberals do it but only doin’ it more true to the things that we know we must do because when you do the things that you know you must do you can see things comin’ atchya before they come atchya. So, be a rogue like me an’ drink a lotta that tea, there, ‘cause it’s good for ya, doanchya know? Now line up an’ I’ll sign the books.”

Mr. Wolf finally gets to Ms. Palin. Holding out a book and a card: “Ms. Palin, I admire you greatly. Here’s my card. I have a proposition for you.”

Ms. Palin, dreaming of dollar signs: “Oh, WSWA. An organization close to my heart, you betchya.”

The next day.

Mr. Wolf: “Hello Ms. Palin. So glad I caught you. This is Craig Wolf.”

Ms. Palin: “Who?”

Mr. Wolf: Craig Wolf of WSWA. I gave you my card yesterday at the book signing.”

Ms. Palin: “Oh, yeah. I was goin’ to call ya in a few minutes, doanchya know?”

Mr. Wolf: “Ms. Palin, I represent an organization of family businesses that I know would respond well to you if you were to speak at our annual meeting. And this year, the meeting is being held in the Family Values capital of the country, Las Vegas. I’m sure I speak for all the families in my organization when I say that we want you to be our keynote speaker and talk about free enterprise. Besides, it would be great exposure for you and your book. All of these families are rogues, you know.”

Ms. Palin: “Oh, thank you Mr. Fox. But ya know, up there in Alaska we learn fast that exposure getsya frostbite. My fee is $100,000, Mr. Fox.”

Mr. Wolf: “It’s Wolf.”

Ms. Palin: “Huh?”

Mr. Wolf: “Wolf. My name is Wolf. You called me Mr. Fox. Anyway, that’s a little steep for my organization…”

Ms. Palin, cutting Mr. Wolf off in mid-sentence: “I’m very sorry, but I didn’t give up a governor’s gig so I could sleep in Greyhound Bus Stations across the country pluggin’ a book that I didn’t even write. That’s my fee Mr. Coyote.”

The time is April 2010. The place is Las Vegas. The meeting is for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. The keynote speaker is Ms. Palin.

Mr. Wolf: “Well, thank you all for the warm welcome and for joining us this year in fun-filled Las Vegas. As promised, I now have the pleasure of introducing our keynote speaker. Here she is, ex Vice Presidential candidate, ex-governor of Alaska, ex mother-in-law, and extra hot Ms. Sarah Palin. Let’s hear it for her, folks.”

As the applause dies down Ms. Palin steps up to the mic and looks over at Mr. Wolf: “Thank you so much for that accurate introduction Mr. Jackal…”

Mr. Wolf cuts her off in mid-sentence: “The name is Craig Wolf, Ms. Palin.”

While the crowd roars, you can hear Ms. Palin ask Mr. Wolf: “Is it ok if I call you Craig?”

Ms. Palin speaks: “Well, I haveta tellya that I’m so pleased to be here tonight to talk about free enterprise, because no where on this earth is there a place like America for free enterprise. It’s tough now, but when we get Barak Osama out of office in 2012, we’ll also get the government off our backs. An’ I doan think we should stop at the federal level—I unnerstan’ that the families here do business in all the states. What we’ll need ta-do, as I know you agree, is get the states outta your business, too (she winks).

Oh, I did some checkin’ around before I came here. I know that you are regulated under sumthin’ called the Three Tear System. Whassup with that, anyway? Maybe the frustration of workin’ with the bureaucrats causes tears, but that’s no reason for the state to rub it in an’ name the system after it (she winks).

Anyways, I checked an’ I know all about your vendors, the wineries, wantin’ to direct ship across the country. I mean, whassup with ships? Which waterway would they use to go from California to the Evil East Coast? What’s wrong with flying? Oh, I know, but planes are safe, really. I fly allatime an’ I have never met one terrorist on a plane. Not one, doanchya know, and with the miles that I rack up doin’ this book tour an’ all.

Now this tea party of yours tonight shows how much free enterprise can do for business. I mean, I saw the bills racked up for you guys at this hotel, and the money you people have already lost at the tables is big time. It’s more than I’m makin’ in a week right now, but my fleece machine is workin’ hard an’ the tea party crowd will pay up if they want me to run again for office—any office. You betchya.

So, bein’ a free enterprise country means making money. An’ no government should prevent you from doin’ that. In fact, I’ll pledge to you right here tonight that if you families can come together with about a million cool ones, I’ll take the fight to federal and local governments. We’ll dismantle this cryin’ shame known as the Three Tear System.

Whaddaya say to that? No more tears.”

As Ms. Palin leaves the stage amidst a resoundingly quiet house, she runs into a man she does not know. “Can you tell me where Craig is?”

The man: “Oh I’m sorry. Mr. Wolf is no longer with us.”

Ms. Palin: “Aw. I didn’t even know he was sick. Who do I see about that certified check?”

The man: “I’m Joe Bison and I’m Mr. Wolf’s replacement. I’ll take care of the check for you.”

Ms. Palin: “Oh boy. Do you mind if I call you Joe?”

Mr. Bison: “Sure. It’s only for a few minutes anyway.”

Ms Palin: “Huh? Well, listen, can you get me that check right away. I’ve got another gig tonight speakin’ at the annual gathering of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

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
January 2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 8, 2010


When does an emerging wine region fully emerge?

In the mid 1970s, I worked for a production company in New York that put together a multi-media program (16 mm film and three 35 mm slide projectors) for the Beaulieu Vineyards visitor center in Napa. By 1979, the program needed some updating and so I traveled to Napa to meet with Leigh Knowles, who was then the President of Beaulieu, to talk about the changes necessary.

It was three years after the famous Paris tasting that catapulted California’s Napa wine world onto the stage, but in 1979, Napa was not yet a dynamic traffic jam. In fact, V. Sattui was selling wine out of what I believe was a VW bus, and not for effect.

Although it was a well-established wine region more than 100 years old, to me, in 1979 Napa was a sleepy place that seemed emerging.

Now—with hindsight—it’s easy to see how wrong I was. Napa had already emerged; I just didn’t know it yet. Even though I was drinking and enjoying many wines of Napa, my mindset was steeped in European wine regions.

In the nineteenth century, Keuka Lake’s Village of Hammondsport was a Finger Lakes community where the first scheduled airplane flight really took place, and where a naval aviation industry spawned; it also hosted a dynamic wine industry as old as (or older than) the one at Napa. This was no sleepy community.

In 1976, as Napa came out of its deep sleep, a 96 year-old Hammondsport winery was the sixth largest wine company in the U.S. It might still be around today, had corporate mania not gobbled it and spit it out after cashing in on its assets.

While Napa began to enjoy the press coverage of the Paris event, New York wine enjoyed a small revolution of its own—the state legislature finally opened up winery licensing to accommodate smaller wineries, and the Finger Lakes was ending a full decade of successful Vitis vinifera vine and wine production in a region once thought to be inhospitable to that grapevine species.

At the time, only a handful of wineries existed in the Finger Lakes region—34 years later, more than 100 make the region their home.

So why did a wine blogger recently refer to the Finger Lakes as an emerging wine region?

He did so because that is what the region’s image has remained ever since it began to emerge anew in 1976.

Like any other wine region, there’s good, bad, great, and not-so-great wine produced in the Finger Lakes—wine is always producer-specific. Therefore, this wine writer doesn’t buy the notion that lack of quality keeps the region in an emerging holding pattern, as many have opined.

Many producers of Finger Lakes Riesling wines have proven themselves over and over, and consumers willing to try the region’s sparkling wines would be pleasantly surprised by many of them. But as I learned with my attitude toward Napa 30-plus years ago, mindset makes for powerful denial.

So, what keeps the Finger Lakes region from having fully emerged? Here are some thoughts that might explain it.

Generally, Finger Lakes wineries are not focused—the region offers too many wine styles that it probably shouldn’t. Plus, its message is confused. Does it want to be a national industry or a local tourist draw?

If the Finger Lakes wine industry seeks national attention and distribution, it will likely have to increase production of its best wines.

Not enough critics have told enough wine geeks to drink Finger Lakes wine, and that places the wine industry in a Catch-22: although it emerged many years ago as a quality wine-producing region, until someone else proclaims that it has emerged it will continue to be viewed as emerging. (I recall Robert Parker being quoted in the 1980s that the future of the New York wine industry will remain provincial.)

I welcome other opinions as to why, after 152 years of commercial wine production, and after 34 years of a vinifera revolution the Finger Lakes remains an emerging wine region to many.

In my view, it’s up to the Finger Lakes region to agree on a focus and stick to it--and then get out and build the Finger Lakes brand.

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
January 2010. All rights reserved.