I know that it is not easy to make good wine. And wine can be difficult to sell, too. But apparently buying wine is even harder.
That ’70s Wine
At least that’s the word from some top wine critics. Lettie Teague’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal was ostensibly about that 1970s favorite, Pouilly-Fuissé, but much of it was actually a gentle rant about the difficulty she experienced in trying to buy a few bottles for a tasting. Seems the specialist wine merchants she contacted just didn’t have much in stock. She had to work pretty hard to put together a reasonable sample.
Is it just a Pouilly-Fuissé problem? Maybe, but Teague reported much the same experience a couple of weeks ago when she tried to put together a tasting of wines from Washington state. Teague’s merchants carried just a bottle or two of Washington wine, same as that 70’s wine. That’s all we need, they told her. No one cares, they said.
What do Washington wines have in common with the French? I used to think it was latitude but now I know — you can’t buy them in New York! (BTW word of mouth evidence suggests that Washington wines might be easier to find in New York than Teague’s article indicates.)
Mind the Gap
I know there are many factors at work here including New York’s peculiar retail wine regulations, the dollar-euro exchange rate and especially the recent “flight to safety” among wine sellers who seek to minimize inventory in a very uncertain market.
America’s byzantine interstate wine trade regulations are part of the problem, too. I’ve often looked across the pond to Britain and imagined how great it would be to have a unified wine market (without dozens of state and even local regulatory regimes). Wine is easier to sell in Britain because of this and so I’ve always thought that it was easier to buy, too. I guess I forgot my own frustrated wine buying experiences living in London a few years ago, when I tried to find interesting U.S. wines to share with British friends; pretty much all I could find in my local drinks shop was bottom shelf generics.
I was reminded of this by one of Jancis Robinson’s recent Financial Times columns where she vented her frustration about trying to buy just a bottle or two of very good wine for dinner. You can buy vast quantities of cheap and cheerful wine as Tesco, she said, and of course you can purchase many of the finest wines on earth by the case and have it delivered to your door the next day. But what if you just want one bottle of something a notch or two above the supermarket category?
Yes, you can do it, she said, but it isn’t easy. And then she listed the five British merchants that she thinks fill the bill. Five! Ouch. “… this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers,” she moaned. The gap between BOGOF Tesco and a case of Chateau Lafite is bigger than I thought! Robinson cites the increasing dominance of the big supermarket chains as a critical factor driving the specialist wine merchant out of business. Tesco, of course, is now the world’s largest wine merchant and 70% of British wine comes from a supermarket shelf.
Decanter published an article last year (in the 2009 California supplement) bemoaning the fact that so few American wines are available in the UK. Bottom and top are easy enough to find, but nothing much in the vast middle. They cited a number of factors including American winemakers’ resistance to the deep discounts needed to make export sales, high British retail margins and the incompatibility of American wine styles and British palates. Whatever the reason, it seems that British wine buyers are surprisingly under-served when it comes to America’s diverse wine array.
Why Can’t a Wine Be More Like a Book?
It occurs to me that the situation facing wine buyers today is a lot like book buying was twenty years ago. It was easy to find best sellers and trashy paperbacks. And specialist shops catered to particular interests at a price. But much of the vast book supply was very difficult for buyers to access.
And then came Amazon.com, of course. And now the world of new and used books is only a click away.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were an Amazon.com for wine? That would be one “killer app,” as they say. But I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not soon. Amazon.com announced plans to start selling wines online a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it and it is easy to see why.
Although bottled wine does share many of the attributes that made books Amazon.com’s initial target market, there are a number of discouraging negatives to consider. Wine is heavy and costly to ship compared to books. A books doesn’t care if the weather is hot or cold while it is in transit, but your half-case of Chianti surely does. And of course there are the legal barriers that restrict interstate shipping at every turn.
I’m hoping that someone will come along with that Killer Wine App that makes fine wine buying as efficient as shopping for books, but until then I think that retail [wine] therapy will remain a source of frustration, not relief, for at least some of us.
Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times suggests that wine books share some of the same distribution frustrations as wine. She reports a trend towards self-publication of specialist wine books.