Deconstructing and Disentangling the Disintermediation of the Wine Business

Disintermediation was a hot topic in financial economics a few years ago — I built an entire economics class around it — and it remains a powerful idea even if it may be an unfamiliar word.  I think we don’t use the term so much these days because the concept is now woven into the fabric of our daily lives! Time to untangle it and see how it works, especially in the wine business.

Disinter … what?

Disintermediation refers to the process of “cutting out the middle man” — reducing the number of links in the supply chain by eliminating certain functions. If you’ve ever tried to sell a home yourself rather than using a real estate agent “intermediary” or bought or sold anything on eBay or Craig’s List then you’ve been part of the disintermediation movement to a certain extent. As the video above suggests, the quotidian activity of buying an airline ticket was once upon a time a middleman business. Not so much any more!

Commercial banks were the main focus of financial disintermediation back in the day. Banks and other financial intermediaries provided valuable services (that’s how middlemen earn their pay), but the incentive to borrow or lend directly through “securitized” products was strong and that’s why financial disintermediation started to occur. Disintermediation increased the apparent efficiency of the financial markets but also probably increased risk and volatility because some of the functions of the intermediaries were lost and the bank-based regulatory structure found it difficult to cope with the “non-bank banks” and other institutions that evolved. Or at least that’s my take on how the process unfolded.

Disintermediation still goes on today, but it has become so commonplace that we don’t give it much attention — until we are the links cut out of the chain! The advent of “crowd-sourcing” or “crowd-funding” websites is a good example of disintermediation. There are all sorts of ways to shorten the supply chain, both when it is a good idea and when it is not (sometimes it turns out the missing link was really important).

How Does This Relate to Wine?

Which brings us (finally) to wine. A Wine Economist reader writes to suggest disintermediation as a topic for a column and I think it is a great idea.  There are a lot of big and little examples of disintermediation at work in the wine industry.

On the big end of the scale we have giant firms like Tesco who now often source bulk wines directly from around the world and bottle them under their own labels (sometimes in their own plants) and sell them under house brand labels.  The streamlined process shortens the chain and cuts cost.

Disintermediation was part of the story for one of American wine’s biggest success stories of recent years — Two Buck Chuck (a.k.a. the Charles Shaw wine sold at Trader Joe’s stores). Most wine in America goes through the three-tier distribution system with its built-in middleman structure. But Bronco Wine, which makes 5 million cases of Two Buck Chuck a year, and Trader Joe’s took advantage of a provision in California regulations that allowed companies like Bronco to deliver directly to the retailer, cutting out a link and making it possible to profitably sell a two dollar wine. A lot of factors contributed to Two Buck Chuck’s success and this disintermediation was one of them.

Disintermediation works for medium sized firms, too, such as Naked Wines, which uses an interesting crowd-funding and direct sales model — their “angel” investors finance wine production and become a built-in direct-to-consumer market for the final product — that’s double disintermediation in a way. My helpful reader drew my attention to a direct wine retailer called Fass Selections. which aims to cut out two links in the supply chain for their wines: importer and distributor. That’s disintermediation, all right! Disintermediation isn’t everywhere, but there’s a lot of it around (tasting rooms and cellar door sales?), even in places you wouldn’t think to look.

 Down Under Disintermediation

My favorite example of wine disintermediation was a discovery that Sue and I made while walking through the big Queen Victoria public market  in Melbourne during our visit to Australia in September. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the big stack of wine barrels at the ReWine market stall.

refillers

The ReWine folks offer a carefully curated selection of wines that they have purchased in bulk from Australian producers. They sell them directly to consumers in the Queen Victoria and Preston markets — the bottles are filled from the barrel containers you see in the photos. Bring your bottle back to be refilled (like the wine “growlers” that are gaining popularity here in the U.S. where local law permits them) and you get a discount.

The wines range from basic dry red and dry white wines sold at a low price to some very interesting products on up the line including dry, sweet and fortified wines. There was a nice Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills on offer when we stopped by.

You get what you pay for in the basic range, we were told, as these wines are blends made for a particular price point like basic wines everywhere in the world, with more distinctive products at the higher price points. Something for everyone, I think especially for a wine economist like me!

These examples just scratch the surface of disintermediation in the wine industry. I visited with a  2500 case winery recently that seemed to build its entire distribution model around the concept of cutting out the middleman. Easy to see the incentive to do this and also to appreciate the risks.

Once you start to think about disintermediation you will begin to see it at work everyone, even in the world of wine. Keep your eyes open — it might not change everything, but it’s bound to have a big effect.

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Thanks to my economics-savvy reader for suggesting this topic. Thanks to Sue for the Melbourne photos.

American Wine Economists to Meet in Walla Walla — June 2014

The American Association of Wine Economists have announced a Call for Papers to be presented at their annual meeting, which will be held in Walla Walla, Washington this year.  Click on the links below for more details. Hope to see you in Walla Walla. Hope you enjoy this video, which is a good introduction to the Walla Walla wine story. Enjoy!
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The 8th Annual Conference of the  American Association of Wine Economists AAWE  will be held from
 
          June 22-25, 2014 
   in Walla Walla, Washington.
Check the website for more information.
Please send a 500-word abstract to   aawe@wine-economics.org.
The submission deadline is March 1, 2014.

Wine Snobs, Cheese Bores and the Fake Hooters Conspiracy

Recent columns by two of my favorite writers — Eric Asimov and Simon Kuper — provoke a brief rant about globalization (and its discontents).

Simon Kuper

The Global Cheese Bore Epidemic

Simon Kuper is a global citizen and so, like a fish in water, he sees globalization from an insider’s perspective. Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Paris and writes about global sport and global affairs for the British newspaper, the Financial Times.

His recent FT column on “An everyday taste of happiness” is on the surface an appreciation of good food. Paris has great food, Kuper writes, and he wonders at one point whether he would live in Paris if its food was bad? No, he’d probably stay — he loves Paris — but he had to think about it.

You can find pretty good food just about everywhere these days and globalization is partly responsible.”Globalization tends to improve cooking,” according to Kuper, and I think he is right. Immigration — global movements of people — also entails global movements of their cuisines, enriching the host country food scene. Global tourism means that millions are exposed to foreign foods and food ideas and bring them back home.

Global media plays a role, too. Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet paved the way for what is now a global media foodie explosion. Top Chef, Master Chef. Iron Chef. Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain.  Good news, mainly, according to Kuper’s theory. He even admits that as much as he may not appreciate the global brand Taco Bell it is probably better than the Wonder Bread cuisine of the 1950s that it has partly replaced.

But he doesn’t forgive everything — “The ‘food renaissance’ is indeed linked to class and therefore encourages status displays: the fastest-growing demographic category from Britain to China today is ‘cheese bores.’” (!)

Could you take Kuper’s essay the replace “food” with “wine”? Almost. The parts on immigration (expanded to include flying winemakers and harvest interns) and tourism would hold true. Global media has not yet embraced wine to the same extent as food and fashion, however. But the positive general effects (and boorish negative side effects) that Kuper describes would still hold.

Asimov’s Global Glass

Eric Asimov

If Kuper sees globalization as a glass half full, Eric Asimov seems to worry that it might be half empty in his New York Times column “Europeans Stray From the Vine.” He starts with the sad news that wine drinking is in decline in France. It is way down in terms of quantity and he is concerned a bit about the quality as well. The French now drink more rosé than white wine and box wines have risen from 5% of the market to 30% despite being banned in some regions. Sacrebleu!

What are the French drinking instead of wine? Well, just about everything. Craft beer, spirits, everything else. Even when they drink wine, the French don’t limit themselves to the regional selections that might have been their only choice 50 years ago. Now they seek wines from across France and Europe and around the world. The French are becoming more like Americans!

And Americans are becoming more like the French, enjoying not only their own wines but (with Asimov’s encouragement) drinking wines from France and everywhere else. Asimov has written in the past what a joy it is to live in New York City these days with the world of choices (of wine but also food and other cultural produce) that are available there.

Globalization has costs and benefits, he concludes. “The benefit is better wine and more pleasure for all who are interested. The costs? Homogenized cultures and hyper-competition for the historic benchmark wines that put them largely in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.”

The Globalization Paradox

It is worth reading the columns by Kuper and Asimov and looking at how they intersect, agree, and sometimes disagree. I’m struck by the fact that they both find class issues to be of concern when it comes to global food and wine, for example — the curse of rich wine snobs and cheese bores. I am also interested to note the way that they both end up commenting upon an idea that I first saw in a book by Tyler Cowen called Creative Destruction. I call it the Paradox of Globalization.

Cowen’s book is all about the costs and benefits of cultural globalization and it is one of the best globalization books I know. The paradox, which you will recognize in both Kuper and Asimov essays, is that global influences enrich our lives here at home. More diverse food, wine, art, music, fashion — the list goes on and on. But, there’s a dark side, too.

The problem is that this globalization isn’t limited to your home town. Everyone — in New York, Paris, London, Mumbai — everyone wants to enjoy these global experiences. And they get them although maybe not all at once and with the rich having greater access than the poor. You get the picture.

Which creates the problem that when you travel you find that the quaint little villages (and village wines)  that you imagined would give you that authentic foreign experience have been replaced, at least in part, by the same global selection you have at home. In short, home gets better, but travel becomes something of a disappointment. That’s the Paradox of Globalization: As everyone’s home town becomes globalized, enriching our everyday lives, the world seems to become less foreign, less global, and that seems like a big loss.

Hooters in Innsbruck

A couple of my former students sent me a photo from their travels back in 2000 that captured this point precisely. It showed a quaint street in Innsbruck, Austria with one and only one visible “global” sign: a yellow banner that proclaimed the grand opening of a Hooters restaurant. Famous for hot wings and the tight t-shirts its waitresses wear, Hooters in Innsbruck might strike some people as a kind of evil American conspiracy against indigenous culture.

“What’s wrong with globalization!” was written on the back of the photo. Yikes! You can imagine how dismayed they must have been to see this unexpected (and for them unwanted) reminder of home.

[Update: a reader's comment (see below) reports that Hooters my students saw was not a real one -- some Austrians appropriated the name to set up "fake" Hooters that fooled many people.]

I admit I felt a little bit the same when I saw the big TGI Fridays restaurant near the main square in Riga, Lativia. TGI Fridays? Here? Really? But I got over it when I saw all the happy Latvians enjoying the barbecued ribs. Why shouldn’t they?

How deep does the Paradox of Globalization go? My suspicion is that the most obvious instances are surface level phenomena and that real indigenous culture is able to withstand whatever damage that Hooters or Taco Time might do. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be cautious.

The globalization paradox is part and parcel of the world we live in today and while it may disappoint us when we see the French losing hold of a certain idea of wine  that we associate with them, I think we can also take pleasure that Americans (and Chinese and many others) are embracing the culture of wine. And we can hope that the younger generation in France will discover their own idea of wine.

A final point to consider is this: food is far ahead of wine in terms of its global diffusion and penetration , don’t  you think? The media embrace of food might be responsible for this but there are other factors — everyone eats but only some of us (the lucky ones) drink wine.

But I think wine will catch up. Looking at the world of food today, I wonder what the world of wine will look like in 50 years?

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Thanks to Melissa and Mari for the Innsbruck Hooters discovery.

If you want to read more about this topic, my 2005 book Globaloney is a critique of globalization’s cultural impacts and the arguments we make about them. It was named a best business book of the year by Library Journal. Incredibly, someone seems to be selling a lightly used copy on Amazon for 1-cent (plus shipping). Two Buck Chuck, meet One Cent Mike.

Economist Report: Bacchus to the Future?

Wine Economist readers might want to check out the current (November 30, 2013) issue of the Economist newspaper to see what they have to say about the changing (and  not so changing) world of wine. I’m talking about an article called “Bacchus to the Future” that is featured in the Technology Quarterly section of the newspaper.

The story is about technological advances in what outsiders might consider a very traditional business. Please follow the link to read the entire article. I will insert a few quotes just to tease you a bit.

Few industries are more suspicious of change than winemaking.

True, but not universally true.  My reading of wine history shows that sometimes technology is  embraced (the Gallos and Robert Mondavi are on my list of noteworthy innovators) and sometimes stubbornly resisted. Europeans were in denial for decades after phylloxera hit them. How long did they resist grafting their vines onto American rootstocks?

“Technology has vastly improved the low end,” says Tim Keller, a former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards in Napa. “There’s no longer an excuse for making a defective wine.”

So true. I discuss  this in the chapter of Extreme Wine about the best and worst wines. Inexpensive wines might not be to your taste, but they consistently achieve a commercial standard and are unlikely to be the worst wines you will ever taste. A warm embrace of technology is part of the explanation.

Because consumers remain seduced by the notion that wine should be made by humble farmers with as little intervention as possible, fine-wine labels still try to keep their experiments under wraps. But they are quietly deploying technology in a new way: not just to make bad wine decent, or to make good wine more cheaply, but to make already-great wines greater still.

The article talks about de-alcoholization as one of the hidden technological innovations and I think most of us agree that this useful (and sometimes necessary) tool is generally kept out of sight. Other examples of widely used but invisible wine technology?  Two words: Mega Purple!

France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology. As Mr Merritt notes, the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.

This is a point that I haven’t considered before. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it. And I guess that’s the point. Check out the article to see what else it has to say.

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While you are thinking, you might give some thought to holiday gifts for your wine-loving friends. You can’t go wrong with my books, Wine Wars and Extreme Wine. Just a suggestion!

Fine Wine Investment: Reading the Tea Leaves

My third column on the fine wine investment market for Wine-Searcher.com appeared recently — it’s an end-of-year analysis called  “Reading the Fine-Wine Tea Leaves.” Tea leaves? Yes, because I look ahead to 2014 using the recent Hong Kong auction results as my “tea leaves” leading indicator.

Please click on the link to read the whole  article — be sure to leave a comment if you agree or disagree strongly with my analysis.

One of the missions of The Wine Economist project is to promote objective analysis of the wine industry — to treat wine as a business, which it is, and not as a completely special “planet wine” where the laws of physics (and economics) don’t really apply. Although it is fair to say that I am still getting the hang of writing about the very specialized fine wine investment markets, that’s what I try to do with my Wine-Searcher columns, too.

One of the points I make this time is that we perhaps should not be too surprised that the blue chip fine wine market (read “Bordeaux”) is not booming right now. If fine wine is an “alternative investment” category like gold, for example, then it is natural that interest wanes when there’s a boom market for more  conventional investments (the alternatives to the alternatives, if you get my drift).

Equity indices are up strongly in the U.S. and Japan this year. Gold — perhaps the ultimate alternative investment asset — is sharply lower. Should we be surprised that Bordeaux-heavy fine wine investment indices (which have declined much less than gold) are not on the rise?

That said, I am cautiously optimistic about fine wine investment in 2014. Read the Wine-Searcher column to find out why!

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Special thanks to Wine-Searcher editor Rebecca Gibb for her help.

European Wine Economists to Meet in Lyons — June 2014

Update 17 December 2014. The date of this conference has changed — now scheduled for June 4-7, 2014.

Our friends at the European Association of Wine Economists have asked us to announce the “Call for Papers” for their upcoming annual conference. As you can see below, they are interested in broadening the academic discussion of wine economics to include scholars from other fields — a great idea! And Lyons is great location for wine and food. Interested? See details below.

call_1_EuAWE

  For more information please click through to these websites:

Vineyard Data Quantification Society – VDQS http:// www.vdqs.net

European Association of Wine Economists – EuAWE http://www.EuAWE.org

Society for Quantification in Gastronomy – SQG http://www.gastronometrica.org.

Thanksgiving: American Wines for an American Celebration

Thanksgiving is the distinctively American holiday and we are happy to share the idea of a day of appreciation with other nations. A festive meal is generally part of the Turkey Day plan and so the question always comes up, what wines should we serve?

America: Beyond the Usual Suspects

There are many good choices depending upon the components of the meal, but we tend to lean towards American wines here at The Wine Economist office. And as Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s recent book American Wine reminds us, we do not need to limit our choices to wine from the “usual suspect” states and regions. While most of America’s wines are produced in California, most of America’s wineries (by a small majority) are in other states!

Wines & Vines reports that the United States boasted more than 7400 wineries in 2012 and of those about 3500 were located in California. The Californians made a vast majority of the wines measured in either value or volume, but there are active wineries in all of the states and so lots and lots of  “local wines” for anyone wanting to support the local industry.

Most of us have tasted wines from California, Washington and Oregon and while some wines are surely better than others, it is clear that the best are world class products. Perhaps fewer have sampled wines from further down the list: New York, BC, Virginia, Texas and so on. What is the state of the art of wine in these states and regions?

Well, I have tasted many New York, Ontario, B.C. and Michigan wines at Riesling Rendezvous and other tastings and I can attest to the high quality of the best wines. Idaho with 50 wineries doesn’t make this list, but we tasted many outstanding wines when we visited there in October.

An opportunity to sample the wines of Missouri, for example, or Oklahoma does not frequently present itself. Most of the wineries are small and rely mainly upon cellar door sales. Very few make it into the broader distribution channels. It is a rare treat to be able to taste them.

Great American Wine Festival

Which is why we motored down to Portland recently to join the fun at the Great American Wine Festival, an event organized to coincide with a wine tourism conference. I’ll paste a list of the wine regions represented and the specific wines that they poured at the bottom of this column.

The event presented a cross section of American wine ranging from regions with high name recognition  (Sonoma County, Santa Barbara) to others that would be better known to wine historians than to contemporary wine consumers (Maryland, for example, plus Virginia and Missouri).

How were the wines? Well, first a couple of caveats. No one is going to send a bad wine to an event like this even if some questionable wines are made. And I might have cheated a little bit — there were too many wines to taste them all so I let the winery recommendations from Jancis’ and Linda’s book steer me to particular labels in many cases.

Wine Thanksgiving

And as with any tasting, we liked some of the wines better than others. But I would say that overall the quality of the wines we tasted was impressive and they can make us proud of American wine. There was something to enjoy at each table and several of the wines really surprised and delighted us.

Choose well, Americans, and your local wine (or in any case an American wine) will be the highlight of your Thanksgiving table — something we all can give thanks for!

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Thanksgiving update: Our wines were

Appetizers: NV Domaine Ste Michelle Columbia Valley  Brut sparkling wine

Turkey dinner: 2006 Boedecker Cellars “Stewart” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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Here is a list of wines presented by the regional wine groups present at the Great American festival. Click here to see all of the participants, including individual winery representatives not on the list below. Thanks to the Great American Wine Festival for their hospitality and to everyone we met at the tasting. Keep up the great work!

COLORADO WINE

Boulder Creek: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Canyon Wind Cellars: 2012 Anemoi Apeilotes

Carlson Vineyards: 2012 Cougar Run Dry Gewürztraminer

Colorado West: 2012 Elks Gewürztraminer

Ruby Trust Cellars: 2011 Gunslinger

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COLUMBIA GORGE WINEGROWERS ASSOCIATION

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2010 Cabernet Reserve

Cathedral Ridge Winery: 2012 Riesling

Jacob Williams Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Jacob Williams Winery: 2009 Syrah

Memaloose Winery: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Memaloose Winery: 2012 Trevitt’s White

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IDAHO WINE COMMISSION

Cinder Wines: 2012 Dry Viognier

Clearwater Canyon Cellars: 2009 Renaissance Red

Koenig Vineyards: 2010 Syrah

Ste. Chapelle: Soft Huckleberry

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Livermore Valley Wine Country

Concannon Vineyard: 2010 Conservancy, Cabernet Sauvignon

Garre Vineyard & Winery: 2009 Primitivo

John Evan Cellars: 2010 The Paracelcian, Cabernet Sauvignon

Las Positas Vineyards: 2009 Casa de Vinas, Cabernet Sauvignon

Little Valley Winery: 2010 Tempranillo

Longevity Wines: 2012 Livermore Valley, Chardonnay

McGrail Vineyards & Winery: 2010 McGrail Reserve,Cabernet Sauvignon

Murrieta’s Well: 2012 The Whip, White Blend

Nottingham Cellars: 2011 Casa de Vinas, Petite Sirah

Retzlaff Estate Winery: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tamas Estates: 2010 Double Decker Red (blend)

Wente Family Estates: 2012 Morning Fog, Chardonnay

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 MARYLAND WINE

Basignani: 2007 Lorenzino Reserve, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Chardonnay

Big Cork Vineyards: 2012 Late Harvest Vidal

Boordy Vineyards: 2012 Dry Rose, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Syrah & Petit Verdot

Boordy Vineyards: 2010 Cabernet Franc, Reserve, Eastern grown Cabernet Franc

Crow Vineyard and Winery: 2012 Barbera Rose, Barbera, Vidal

Elk Run: 2011 Syrah

Knob Hall Winery: 2012 Willow, Traminette, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc

Knob Hall Winery: 2011 White Oak, Chardonnay, Traminette, Vidal

Old Westminster Winery: 2012 Chardonnay

Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard: 2010 EVOE!, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Sauvignon

2011 Columbia Valley Viognier

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MISSOURI WINES

Hermanhoff Winery: 2010 Vidal

Les Bourgeois Winery: 2011 Premium Claret

Montelle Winery: 2012 Chambourcin

Montelle Winery: 2012 Dry Vignoles

St. James Winery: 2009 Norton

St. James Winery: 2012 State Park Seyval Blanc

Stone Hill Winery: 2012 Chardonel

Stone Hill Winery: 2011 Chambourcin

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OKLAHOMA GRAPE GROWERS & WINEMAKERS ASSOCIATION

Chapel Creek Winery: 2012 Oklahoma Tempranillo

Chapel Creek Winery: 2011 Oklahoma Norton

Coquelicot Vineyard: 2010 Estate Sangiovese

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SANTA BARBARA COUNTY VINTNERS’ ASSOCIATION

Dragonette Cellars: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon

Dierberg/Star Lane: 2011 Dierberg Chardonnay

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: 2012 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Foxen Winery: 2012 Pinot Noir

Hitching Post: 2008 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Perfect Set Sta. Rita Hills

Lafond Winery: 2011 Pinot Noir AVA Sta. Rita Hills

Lucas & Lewellen: 2008 Cabernet Franc

Refugio Ranch Vineyards: 2010 Barbareno, Santa Ynez Valley – Syrah / Petite Sirah

Santa Barbara Winery: 2012 Chardonnay AVA SB County

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SOUTHERN OREGON WINERY ASSOCIATION

Agate Ridge Vineyard Ledger-David Cellars

Cliff Creek Cellars Plaisance Ranch

Deer Creek Winery RoxyAnn Winery

Del Rio Vineyards & Winery Serra Vineyard

Devitt Winery TesoAria Vineyard & Winery

EdenVale Winery Trium Vineyard & Winery

Kriselle Cellars

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VIRGINA WINE

Barboursville Vineyards: 2012 Viognier Reserve

Rappahannock Cellars: 2010 Meritage

Rappahannock Cellars: 2012 Viognier

Tarara Winery: 2012 Nevaeh Red

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THE WINE ROAD NORTHERN SONOMA COUNTY

Alexander Valley Vineyards: – 2009 CYRUS

Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2010 Sin Zin

Silver Oak Cellars: 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonestreet Winery: 2011 Gravel Bench Chardonnay and Broken Road Chardonnay

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Trione Vineyards and Winery: 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Twomey Cellars: 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

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