During the December holidays, while our friends in Chicago and Cleveland and Buffalo and Boston groaned under the weight of ice-age-level snow storms, we here in California were complaining for a different reason: Too much sun!
It hadn’t rained in months, it seemed, and while sipping Prosecco on our patios this past New Year’s Eve, all 38 million of us agreed on two things: It’s good to live in California, and the good times wouldn’t last for long.
We were in the midst of California’s worse drought in a long time – as long as 50+ years by some counts – and doomsday prognostication saturated the local news. The dry spell posed serious danger to a variety of agricultural industries, not least of them wine production. The vine lifecycle had fallen off its ordinary course, and growers reported vegetation and insects sprouting in the vineyards months ahead of schedule. If we didn’t get a cold, wet front soon, the 2014 vintage would be in deep trouble.
Dry river bed near wine country
And then something funny happened: It rained. It poured. The weather cooled down. Outside it felt like (gasp!) February.
And just like that, you mostly stopped seeing stories about drought in the wine industry. The Internet Age’s insatiable news cycle, ever hungry for fresh fuel to feed on, moved on to other topics. Everyone outside the know figured everything was ok.
But those inside the know knew that everything wasn’t ok – not yet. It would take a sustained pattern of consistent rain to make up the deficit run by the drought. And sure enough, after a rainy cold spell, the weather dried off and warmed up again.
Even though you don’t hear as much about it in the news these days, the drought still poses a major threat to California vineyards. We’re even beginning to see areas in which water is being denied entirely to vines as a way to deal with the water shortage – which means that if we don’t get more rain soon, whole vineyards may be lost. While the emergence of such water-use restrictions in wine country may surprise casual observers of the wine industry, it comes as no surprise us at Montesquieu Winery.
The most extreme example we know of surfaced just recently. The Redwood Valley County Water District voted to stop providing unpotable water – which is used for crops and animals – to its customers. In Redwood Valley, which is part of Mendocino County, residents were already restricted to 50 gallons of potable water per day per person. Now they are no longer able to access any water beyond that limit for agricultural purposes or to nourish their animals.
Map of the Redwood Valley AVA (boundary line in orange)
This is particularly bad news for the wineries and vineyards in the Redwood Valley AVA (located within the Mendocino AVA), which is a source of grapes for wineries all over California. Growers no longer have access to the water their vines need. The Ukiah Daily Journal quotes the district’s general manager, Bill Koehler, as saying, “We’re going to get hit hard,” and describing the valley’s $60 million wine industry as effectively “gone.”
(We recommend you read this article to get the full story of the bureaucratic maze that led to this unfortunate situation.)
Moments like this underscore one of the virtues of Montesquieu Winery’s winemaking approach. Sourcing fruit from a variety of different properties gives us the latitude to pick and choose the vineyard sites we want to work with in any given year. That’s especially important in a vintage like 2014, where weather conditions and water restrictions affect certain regions more than others and therefore make selectivity and flexibility especially critical to crafting great wine. However this year turns out, we’ll have access to top performing fruit to get delicious wines into our clients’ hands. Sadly, not every winery will be so fortunate.
Thankfully, Northern California did enjoy some rainfall at the end of last week. But it only lasted a day, and sure enough, this week’s forecast predicts ample sun and unseasonable heat. Do a little dance with us and hope more rain comes – the vines need it!
On the occasion of our release of the highly-anticipated 2010 vintage of our client-favorite Don Zofanor Meritage, it’s worth exploring together what makes wine so special.
Certainly wine is nothing less than what’s in the glass — and by that measure, the thoroughly delicious 2010 Meritage is very special indeed. But truly great wine is about more than just taste. It’s about terroir. It’s about tradition. And most of all, it’s about people.
It’s hard to forget this after a visit with Don Zofanor’s veteran winemaker Federico Benegas-Lynch, whose great-grandfather essentially founded modern winemaking in Mendoza in the 19th century. Spend a few moments with Federico, and you’ll see immediately that he’s the real deal. Spend an entire evening with him walking the vines and talking late into the night, as we did, and you’ll find yourself refreshed, challenged, and inspired.
Below is our account of that magical day in Mendoza and what it taught us. If you can’t find your way to Argentina just now, we recommend you find your way to a cache of the 2010 Meritage before it’s gone and taste for yourself the passion of Federico.
Intimate Asado Dinner with Federico Benegas-Lynch & Don Zofanor
History. Tradition. Family. You’ve probably noticed that these words get thrown around a lot in the wine industry. These days, everyone seems to be claiming that they’re family-owned and family-run, that they are tapping into a tradition as old as the sun, that they use historical winemaking methods.
It’s easy to tune out this sort of rhetoric as marketing-based background noise. And as merchants who are barraged by wineries who want us to introduce them to our clients, we at Montesquieu Winery know how critical it is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. To determine whether there’s real history and tradition in play, and whether it matters to the quality of the wine, we have to do more than just scratch the surface. We have to dig deeper, to pull back the veil to see whether these buzz words reflect something real and unique, or whether they’re merely a marketer’s fancy.
The best way to do that, of course, is to visit the property in person. Go to the vineyards, inspect the winery, taste the wine in its place of origin. Are the vines really old and gnarled? Are they tended naturally and by hand with no trace of chemicals or machine work? Do the grapes taste fresh and vibrant off the vine? What kinds of barrels do they use, and how do they use them? Is the facility clean and pristine? Is the winery a tourist showpiece or a place with real history?
And most of all – who’s there to greet you? Is it a salesperson or hospitality manager? Or is it the owner, the winemaker, someone who pours his or her heart and soul into the winery’s work? What stories do they tell? Are they personal stories, family stories, tales full of history and tradition? And can you feel their passion for the vines as they talk?
Our Gracious Host Federico with Fonda
Do this enough, and you’ll get pretty good at sniffing out empty rhetoric – and you’ll know the real thing when you see it.
Let us give you an example. A small group of Montesquieu wine brokers were in Argentina along with our buying team visiting with our favorite producers and investigating new opportunities. (For more about our trip, including our harvest experience at Michel Rolland’s winery, look here and here.) One Tuesday afternoon, on our way from the Uco Valley to Mendoza proper, we stopped at a winery (which shall remain nameless) that wanted to do a project with us. When they reached out to us initially, they had said all the right things, but we were there to find out for ourselves.
Good thing, too. We were hosted by their director of sales (the owner was nowhere to be found). The tour was nice, and our guide was informative. But there was a problem, the kind of thing you only learn if you’re there in person. It was the middle of harvest, and as we walked by the grape receiving area, we saw stacks of bins full of grapes sitting in the scorching sun while the workers took a lunch break. We would never let this happen to our grapes at such a critical moment when they are most vulnerable. When harvesting in Napa, we work through until the grapes are entirely in, or we store them in a cold locker to preserve freshness. The skins of a grape give it most of its tannin and acid – indeed most of its character – and letting these brittle berries bake in the sun, off-the-vine, is the worst thing for them. It can cause the skin to crack and shrivel, violating the integrity of the wine and robbing it of vitality.
As our tour continued, the more we looked the more we noticed how huge the operation was, how they were pumping out large quantities of wine without the care and attention we expect, how their techniques were oriented more toward volume and style and the market rather than expressing terroir. We tasted through their wines, and there was nothing wrong with them per se. But in a word, the operation was commercial, not artistic, and we could tell that many of the decisions in the vineyard and cellar were driven by sales and financials, not by an abiding passion for the life of the vine.
We had another appointment later that day in Mendoza, and the difference could not have been more stark. Federico Benegas-Lynch, of Don Zofanor fame, is the owner and genius behind this estate begun by his great-grandfather. Along with his right-hand-man Andres, Federico spent all evening with us, walking us through his vineyards, tasting the grapes off the vine, showing us his ancient stone cellar and impeccable winery facility, talking of his passion for Mendoza, telling us stories from his family history, and sharing a long traditional Argentine meal with us.
But it didn’t take all night to realize what we were experiencing. After moments with him, we knew: this is the real deal.
Maybe it was when he took us to his cherished 110-year old Cabernet Franc vines (yes, you read that right: 110 years old!), and the juicy, rich, fresh, ready-to-pick grapes tasted unlike any other Cab Franc grapes we’d had.
Or maybe it was observing how he frequently stood in the vineyards in silence, breathing in the dusk air, gazing over the vines to the Andes Mountains in the background. In those moments, it was if he was alone out there, in his own world, just Federico and his beloved terroir. His passion was palpable, and contagious.
Or maybe it was when he showed us the winery records book begun by his grandfather, in which the first handwritten entry was dated 1918 – and then told us about how his great-grandfather settled in Mendoza in 1883 when it was only a cattle center and hand-carried cuttings from Bordeaux, helping to launch the Mendoza wine industry.
You can’t fake this stuff. And the quality of wine that results from true tradition, history, and artistic passion is unmistakable. We experienced that over the course of our dinner together, as he poured some of his best cuvées for us – wines with distinctive personalities that were elegant, full of character and life, each more fascinating than the one before. The meal – a traditional Argentine asado with various cuts of fresh meat roasting on a massive fire just behind our 40-foot long wooden table – went late into the night. We talked, laughed, and cried (literally!) while reflecting on our shared love for great wine and the human stories behind it.
So this is what we seek for all of our Montesquieu wines. Authenticity. Personality. Passion. And yes – real history, tradition and family. The kind that Federico and his wines have in spades.
We’re thrilled to be able to bring back to our clients the fruit of our relationship with Federico by way of the 2010 Don Zofanor Meritage. This stirring blend of classic Bordeaux varietals Malbec, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot is inspired by Federico’s great-grandfather, who aspired to follow the example of the world’s most famous growing region in building the Mendoza wine industry. It’s an homage to this vision and to the tradition and values he has passed down through the generations, culminating in Federico’s passionate work.
Today after 18 months of rigorous testing and a final OK from the FAA for flight patterns and the TTB for the first ever licensing of DDTC (drone direct to consumer), Montesquieu is proud to announce its partnership with AmazonWineAir, a new division of mega online retailer Amazon, on the world’s first ever drone wine shipment service.
Montesquieu CEO Fonda Hopkins issued the following statement about the groundbreaking service. ‘We have always strived to be a pioneering company in terms of sourcing the very best wines from all over the world, but today’s announcement shows an unmatched commitment to client service and connecting wine lovers to their favorite wines. If you live in a 20 mile radius of an Amazon fulfillment center – http://www.amazonfulfillmentcareers.com/amazon-fulfillment/locations/ – you can order wine from your broker at 9am and have it sitting on your doorstep in time for lunch! You can even ask us to bottle decant one of the bottles in your case so it’s 100% ready to go the second the wine arrives. This is where the industry is headed, and in this world of immediate gratification, we know this service will be an instant success.’
Our service commences this week with our first packages going out Friday in time for the weekend. Presently the drones only have the capacity to carry one case of wine at a time given weight restrictions. New packaging has been rigorously tested and in case of CDF (catastrophic drone failure) we are confident shipments can withstand a fall from approximately 200 feet in the air. While we know clients will be very excited to receive these shipments, we strongly urge that clients stay inside while the drone is delivering their shipment. If you must go outside to observe your drone delivery we request that you wear a helmet, preferably a motorcycle helmet with a full mask.
From all of us at Montesquieu thank you for your business and we look forward to you enjoying our newest level of service!
On the heels of strong reviews of their 2012 wines, Napa winemakers are giddily predicting another outstanding vintage in 2013. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux’s 2013 harvest saw its share of problems, and in the months since, many chateaux seem to have projected a cautiously optimistic attitude while saying as little as possible — perhaps to avoid deflating demand.
Not Stephane Derenoncourt, though. The world-renowned winemaker who consults for a number of Bordeaux properties has now delivered an early assessment of the region’s 2013 vintage, and he’s done so with refreshing candor.
Stephane Derenoncourt in his natural habitat — tending vines
This isn’t the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from winemakers on either side of the pond. After all, they make their living on producing marketable, desirable wines, and you could forgive those who seem to keep quiet or downplay criticism when the outcome isn’t what they’d hope.
But Stephane isn’t your average winemaker. He calls it like he sees it. He abhors marketing-speak. He knows that at the end of the day it’s all about what’s in the bottle, and we can’t make more out of a vineyard than what nature gives us – to try is pure folly.
“We can’t do anything against the whims of the sky, a tsunami, a storm, a terrible spring, a lack of maturity,” says Stephane. “Nature is neither kind nor forgiving. Our job is to understand it, outwit it. Sometimes, it is too powerful and we have to submit to it. 2013 teaches us humility.”
Stephane’s honesty about such things is one reason we at Montesquieu Wines love working with him and our clients adore the wines he’s made and sourced for us. If a wine doesn’t live up to his standards, even if he made it himself, he’ll tell you. And conversely, if he tells you a wine is great, you can take that to the bank.
The Bordelaise have perfected the skill of telling us their wines are great. They’ve made three different “vintage of the century” announcements in the past eight years alone (2005, 2009, 2010). But like many other winemakers, they’re far less eager to admit when their wines are subpar – perhaps out of a fear of losing profits and market share in the hyper-competitive global wine market.
In Stephane’s case, the owners of Chateau Malescasse are putting their money where his mouth is. The 110-hectare property in the Haut-Medoc, where Stephane is winemaking consultant, has announced that in 2013 it will not make a first or second wine, but instead will sell all of the juice to negociants. The decision is expected to cost them at least 800,000 Euros.
Chateau Malescasse’s wines are not up to Stephane’s standards in 2013, so they’re skipping the vintage
“I’m not saying that the wine is bad,” Stephane told Le Figaro when explaining the decision, “but it does not measure up to our ambitions. Rather than squeeze something out of a wine we don’t like, we prefer to cut off our own arm and move on.”
Talk of severing limbs and moving on to the next harvest isn’t what the Bordeaux wine associations want to hear as they gear up for the annual Bordeaux Primeurs trade tasting in a couple of weeks. But it’s exactly what discerning wine lovers need to hear – a frank assessment from an expert who isn’t afraid to tell us like it is.
There are big stars and exclamation points in my calendar every year next to the date for Premiere Napa Valley. It’s Napa’s best wine event, a four hour marathon tasting (that you sprint to sample as much as possible!) of 225 of the valley’s finest wines, followed by a chance to bid on these once-in-a-lifetime five, ten, or twenty case lots. Everyone’s ‘A game’ material is on display, and the chance to spend time with each producer as you taste their wine is priceless insight on what makes their wine and the Napa Valley community so special.
But coming into PNV14 this year I was more than a little concerned. Regardless of vintage, your palate always gets a serious workout from these young powerful wines and the refreshing dreams of Champagne and oysters set in quickly. Coming off of two cool challenging (by Napa standards) vintages in 2010 and 2011, Mother Nature offered up a dream vintage in 2012. Spectacular growing conditions, the greatest of raw materials, and lots of it.
Would Napa’s elite foam at the mouth and take their 2012s overboard? Would we see another 2007, another big quality / quantity vintage which many producers now quietly admit they killed the golden goose and overdid it? Always a barometer for consumer excitement about Napa’s top wines, the day would say a lot about Napa’s direction.
The day will be remembered for the record setting prices but it’s the brilliant array of wines that I’ll never forget. The stats were gaudy indeed, nearly $6 million when the final hammer dropped, almost double the best previous year set in 2012. $260k for 5 cases of Scarecrow shattered the winery’s $125k record set a couple years ago. Four other $100k lots for the first time. But as pretty as the numbers were, the wines that I sampled held the real beauty. I didn’t taste them all, but I was so pleased to find so much restraint and complexity in these powerful wines that are destined to age beautifully. Yes there were still a few producers churning out wine and partying like it was 1999 (you know who you are, hoping for that RP99+ too I’m sure), but the overwhelming direction was that of a deeper pursuit of elegance over power, and balance over beastly, hyper extracted fruit. Mother Nature put the grapes on the tee for producers to belt out huge fat wines and I’m so glad to see most of them didn’t swing for the fences..
Having crammed about half the wines into my four hours of tasting, I walked away with a strong sense of the vintage’s overall promise. At the same time I see no good in offering wine-specific tasting notes from such a rapid event. Not enough time is spent with each wine to offer anything of detail, and you would quickly tire with my use of ‘delicious red fruits, refreshing acidity, lots of energy’, the defining characteristics of the day’s top lots, which there were many. But I do know you should eagerly look forward to some legendary 2012 offerings from Napa in the coming year and that I’ve already got a big star in my calendar for February 21st, 2015, the date for next year’s event. Early rumors were swirling of an equally successful 2013 vintage!
The defining crisis of our time – a tragic lack of clean water – is ravaging our globe, especially drought-prone areas like Eastern Africa. Unwilling to sit by as millions die from preventable diseases, we at Montesquieu Winery are doing everything in our power to make a difference. That’s why we’re pleased to announce that our Wine To Water Rosé Collection has sold out, raising $20,000 for clean water in Ethiopia.
In defiance of the scourge of dirty water, we designed this collection as our tribute to the power of love. “Wait,” you might ask. “What’s love got to do with it?”
According to CNN Top 10 Hero Doc Hendley, founder of Wine To Water, everything.
“When you completely head over heels fall in love with the people you’re serving to try to save their life, something changes in you,” Doc told us recently over dinner. Peering at the glass of our 2012 Love Rosé in his hand, he said, “The thing that I’ve pulled out of my work over and over again is the concept of love – this last wine right here.”
Doc went on to explain that a spirit of love and connection motivates him to spend his life helping those in need. And it’s what motivates organizations like Montesquieu, and the clients and winemakers we work with, to step forward and take action, bridging the gap between our privileged communities here and impoverished communities on the other side of the world that need clean water.
In our view, he’s right as rain. And there’s no better example of the impact of communities coming together than the Wine To Water Rosé Collection, which we tasted and celebrated over dinner that evening. More than a year in the making, the collection came together when Montesquieu partnered with three different winemakers on three beautiful rosés that together would raise $20,000, enabling Wine To Water to get clean water to 1,500 more Ethiopians. Our sales staff spread the word, and our clients enthusiastically supported the wines – so much so that only a week after the collections were released, we reached our goal.
Doc Hendley, Maqueda in hand, at our dinner celebrating the Rose Collection
“You put this in me the first time I met you, that wine is about community,” Doc told Fonda Hopkins, CEO of Montesquieu Winery, at our dinner gathering. “It’s not just about the taste in the glass or even just where it’s made, but it’s about the thing that happens when we’re gathered around the table like this… It’s about communities coming together – Montesquieu, Wine To Water, and the Ethiopian families we’re helping.”
Of course when it comes to wine, Montesquieu Winery is quite passionate about what’s in the glass and who made it – so naturally the Rosé Collection is truly special. Winemaker extraordinaire Hélène Mingot made the 2012 Love Rosé from gorgeous Alexander Valley fruit; Napa legend Heidi Barrett crafted the Prêt-à-Boire as a testimony to the intensity and elegance of her home region; and Martha McClellan’s stunning and regal 2010 Maqueda Cab Franc (the Ethiopian name for the Queen of Sheba) reflects her Midas touch that has collectors falling over themselves to procure her wines.
We’re grateful that all three of these winemakers provided us with such lovely wines for this worthy cause. But a special word of thanks is due to Martha, who after helping us raise a whopping $120,000 for Ethiopia through the 2008 Wine To Water Napa Meritage magnums, decided she still wanted to do more to serve others in need. “The Rosé Collection project started with Martha’s wine,” Fonda explained at dinner as she raised a glass in honor of the Maqueda. “Martha inspired this. She fell in love with Doc and his work, and she told me that she wanted to donate 50 cases of rosé to us and Wine To Water. She’s such a strong supporter of the cause.”
Toasting the partnership between Montesquieu Winery and Wine To Water
Every step along the way, this collection has been a true labor of love. Montesquieu’s creative director Jen Kaye spent countless hours hand-cutting labels, ensuring each was applied just so, and our warehouse staff put in extra effort to assemble the collections and manage logistics. Without the dedication they and others showed, none of this would have been possible.
Are you feeling the love yet? We sure are, and once clean water is flowing from those new wells, our friends in Ethiopia will be too.
The Rosé Collections are gone, but if you missed out, you can still join us in making a difference. Every bottle of Michel Rolland’s Bonne Nouvelle (available here) raises $20 for clean water in Africa. Buy a bottle, save a life.
Wine Spectator Magazine is the most popular wine publication in the U.S. — and it’s not even close. So naturally, they receive tens of thousands of wine samples each year, from wineries all around the world. The editors have no shortage of incredible wines to feature in their magazine.
And yet, of the 15,000 wines they reviewed for the past fifteen issues, they chose only three wines to feature on their cover. By our count, that makes our 2009 Derenoncourt Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, if not one-in-a-million, at least 1 in 5,000!
As good as the wine looks emblazoned on this issue’s cover, it tastes even better. Since the first vintage we made with international winemaking phenom Stephane Derenoncourt — his first-ever U.S. wines — in 2006, our Lake County Cab has become something of a poster-boy for the emergence of the Lake County growing region. Back then, Wine Spectator‘s top California wine critic James Laube wrote a column in which he used the quality of our 2006 Lake County Cab to announce, in essence, “There’s gold in them thar hills!”
And he’s right. Stephane is fond of telling the story of how, while exploring Napa with us in search of vineyards for our project together, we stumbled across the Lake Country region, which was then more-or-less unknown to discerning wine enthusiasts. Enamored with its volcanic soils and mountainous terrain, Stephane immediately saw its potential for producing Cabernet of immense depth and pleasure. We inked a long-term vineyard contract for his favorite plot in Andy Beckstoffer’s Red Hills Vineyard, and our Lake County Cab was born.
Eight years later, it’s exciting to see our early enthusiasm for Lake County’s potential now being shared with a wider audience of wine lovers. And it’s gratifying that the Spectator editors continue to point to our Cabernet as the standard-bearer of top quality from that burgeoning region.
If you have’t yet had the pleasure of tasting this wine, you can order it here. We love sharing our passion for wine, and few wines have engendered as much passion as this one over the past few vintages. If you’ve enjoyed special moments with this wine, tell us about it in the comments below — we’d love to hear about it!
Here’s to many more of these moments in the years to come!
Dec. 19, 2013 – Thanks to a lot of enthusiasm, little bit of effort and one very special wine – Michel Rolland’s2003 Bonne Nouvelle – 1,800 more people are set to receive the thing they need most: a source for clean water.
Last month, with the holidays in full swing, we at Montesquieu Winery wanted to harness the spirit of giving to bring good news to those who need it most. So, led by our CEO Fonda Hopkins, we set a goal: Let’s raise $25,000 by Christmas Day for CNN Hero Doc Hendley and his organization Wine To Water to dig several more wells for people in Southern Ethiopia. Our Montesquieu wine brokers and clients enthusiastically took up the cause, and in the space of only a few weeks, we raised enough to provide clean water for over 1,800 Ethiopians – and a grand total of 10,000 people in Africa since 2012.
We feel that Montesquieu wines always reflect artisan winemaking and terrific value. But even by those high standards, the 2003 Bonne Nouvelle (“good news” in French) is in a league of its own – as you know very well if you’ve had the pleasure of trying it! Handcrafted by Michel Rolland – inarguably the world’s most famous (and best?) winemaker – the Bonne Nouvelle shows the world-class potential of South Africa’s beautiful vineyards when tended by a master vintner. $20 per bottle goes to Wine To Water to build wells in Ethiopia, so thateach bottle sold literally saves a life. (You can buy it here.)
If you’ve been around Montesquieu much, you’ve heard us say this before, but it needs to be said again: The water crisis is the defining crisis of our time. Dirty water kills more children than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Over 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness.
And yet, if we work together we can put a dent in this global tragedy and help real people in need, just by doing something simple like enjoying great wine. That’s why we’re so committed to this project.
All of this is part of our broader goal to help Doc Hendley (who is the subject of a new CNN documentary that aired in December) and his organization Wine To Watermake a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families worldwide. Through past fundraisers, Montesquieu has already raised over $150,000 for Wine To Water, funding over ten wells in Ethiopia and providing clean water to 10,000 people and counting.
“We’re so pleased to partner with Doc Hendley and Michel Rolland to make a difference in the lives of so many families,” says Fonda Hopkins. “But this is only a drop in the bucket. We can and must do more.” Although we reached our holiday goal of $25k, our efforts are ongoing. We won’t rest until we’ve done all that we can. Please join us by buying the Bonne Nouvelle at www.winetochangetheworld.com, and save a life today!
1. There are wineries in Indiana? (Yes, just like each of the other 49 states.)
2. Indiana wineries can’t sell their own products to shops and restaurants? Why on earth not?
Good question. In Indiana, it is currently illegal for a winery to sell wine to a retailer. State law requires wineries to find a wholesaler who’s willing to buy the wine from the winery and then sell it to retailers – after taking a sizeable margin, of course. The result is that many local boutique wineries find themselves unable to place their wines in shops or restaurants, because very few wholesalers are interested in taking on small wineries with low quantities.
Seems strange, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s quite ordinary: Most states have a restriction like this in place. And in every instance, the main purpose of the system is to prop up the politically powerful wholesaler tier – the middlemen of the wine world – at the expense of producers, retailers and consumers (you know, those actually making, selling, buying and drinking the wine).
It’s pretty obvious why this arrangement is a bum deal for wineries and retailers, but what about consumers? After all, can’t Indiana residents simply buy wine directly from Indiana wineries?
They can, but here’s the rub: This law applies to out-of-state wineries too (as do almost all of the parallel laws in other states). And because in Indiana it’s also illegal for an out-of-state winery to ship wine directly to a consumer (unless the consumer first visits that winery in person), there’s no way for wine enthusiasts to get that limited-release Napa Cab they love so much unless a local wholesaler (who almost never deals directly with consumers) decides it wants to invest in a tiny parcel of those wines to carry in the Indiana market – unlikely at best.
When forced to publicly defend this system, wholesalers tend to fall back on several old and rather unpersuasive arguments. They make wild claims like “We wholesalers are the only ones protecting society from public inebriation and under-aged drinking!” and “Without these laws, we’d all be out of business, eliminating jobs and tanking the local economy!” and “It’s been this way for nearly a hundred years – here’s to a hundred more!”
It would be easy to cite data that strongly suggests that these arguments are nothing more than rhetorical cover for wholesalers’ true aim – to use the political system to maximize their own profits by ensuring that state laws force other companies to do business with them.
But that would be the easy way out. Instead, let’s take these arguments at face value and address them on the merits.
To do so, let’s pretend for a moment that out-of-state wineries were able to sell directly to Indiana retailers without wholesaler involvement. Here’s how that system would play out:
Let’s say I own a very small, high-end California winery, and Jane Doe of Indianapolis hears about our wines from an Illinois friend, or maybe she reads a favorable review in The Wine Advocate.
Let’s say she decides she wants to buy three bottles. Unfortunately for Jane, she cannot place an order with us directly, because Indiana law requires a consumer to visit an out-of-state winery in-person before getting any wine shipped to them.
Ok, so Jane then decides to swing by her favorite local retailer to ask them if they can bring it in for her. The retailer calls me and asks if we have Indiana distribution. We’re so small that we don’t, so he places an order for three bottles directly with me. We sell the three-pack to the retailer for $90 and ship it to them via FedEx, and the retailer sells it to Jane for $120. We make $90, the retailer makes $30, Jane gets her wine, and Indiana wholesalers come out the same.
Or maybe the retailer reads about my winery somewhere and knows he can hand-sell a couple of cases to clients who are looking for new Napa wineries to explore. So he contacts me to order 24 bottles, we make $720, he makes $240, and a dozen or more Indiana consumers get to enjoy a wine that’s otherwise unavailable to them.
Can someone make a principled argument as to why this shouldn’t be legal?
What about Constitutional constraints? This one’s easy. Unlike with federal legislation and jurisprudence, 21st Amendment considerations don’t apply here, because a sovereign state is free to make its system as open as it likes.
What about public safety? In the hearing on this subject held by the Indiana legislature last week, the Indiana wholesaler trade association actually asserted the highly dubious and wholly unsupported claim that wholesalers make it their business to ensure retailers are not inebriating customers or selling to the under-aged. Really? I’ve never known a wholesaler sales rep to make this task a priority – have you? State licensing systems hold retailers responsible for withholding alcohol from those who are drunk and under 21. Wholesalers have no obligations in this regard – and why should they since they don’t deal with consumers? The idea that they’re expending resources to serve as public guardians out of the goodness of their hearts doesn’t pass the laugh test.
What about keeping our wholesalers in business?This shouldn’t be a problem if, as wholesalers claim, they act as more than mere middlemen leaching profits from pre-existing revenue and instead add value to the distribution system.And the truth is that wholesalers DO add value – for those suppliers and retailers for whom they add value. Logistics, infrastructure, in-state warehousing, sales reps pounding the pavement – large wineries that need to move large quantities will still pay for those services. If you’re not sure about this, just look at states that have opened their system to allow self-distribution – wholesalers are still flourishing in these places. If anything, a little competition from other tiers only forces them to get better at their job.
But anyway, this is less a principled argument than a protectionist one. Most liberals and conservatives will agree that the government shouldn’t be in the business of making laws designed only to keep a select group of companies in business unless those companies are performing a crucial public service.
So why should we not create a level-playing field? Is it not fair and beneficial to permit wholesalers to continue working with those wineries they want to; to allow wineries without representation either to fulfill orders initiated by retailers or to try their hand at developing their own distribution; and to enable consumers to get wines they can’t otherwise?
We may argue about how much value wholesalers bring to the table, and for whom, and whether that matters when making laws. We may disagree about whether small wineries can successfully distribute their wines themselves. But I have yet to hear a compelling, principled argument about why Indiana — or any other state — shouldn’t open the market to let this play out equitably.
Continuing this protectionist, wholesaler-centered system hurts local shops, restaurants and wineries in- and out-of-state alike, while reducing consumer choice. But more importantly,it does a disservice to ordinary citizens who deserve to have their representatives pursuing their best interests, not the balance sheets of whichever companies spend the most on lobbying.
One concrete way you can help is to join a new organization designed to represent the interests of wine consumers. Surprisingly, no such entity existed prior to this year. Now, you can support the cause by supporting the American Wine Consumer Coalition – www.wineconsumers.org.
Most of all, we need everyone who cares about this issue to take action. Wherever you live, we encourage you to make your voice heard. Tell your legislators that you support freedom for wineries to sell to retailers and retailers to buy from wineries. Tell them that you’re in favor of enhancing choice and healthy competition. Tell them you don’t want your tax dollars spent on making and enforcing laws that serve only to line the pockets of interest groups.
And while you’re at it, tell them that consumers too should be able to buy directly from out-of-state wineries without all the red tape that makes it cost-prohibitive for so many small wineries. Believe it or not, if enough of us speak out, it will make a difference.
The new classification for Saint-Émilion was announced on Friday September 7th by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine). There were four wines promoted to the top level — Premier Grand Cru Classé – three of which are made by Stéphane Derenoncourt: Château Larcis Ducasse, Château Canon la Gaffelière and La Mondotte. As a result of this re-classification, Stéphane is responsible for seven out of the eighteen Premier Grand Cru Classé wines. This impressive achievement underscores why many – including we at Montesquieu Wines – believe that no one knows the Right Bank quite like Stéphane.
One of Stéphane’s most famous wines, La Mondotte, skipped the Grand Cru Classé category entirely, jumping from AOC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru to Premier Grand Cru Classé, which is a rare feat. For those familiar with the famous garagiste wines such as La Mondotte and Valandraud (also promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé), these promotions were well-deserved and not entirely unexpected. La Mondotte has been considered among the greatest Bordeaux chateaux for years, a collector’s gem and fetching prices that one would expect from the top level. View Full Post
At Montesquieu, we bring you the finest hand-crafted wines from the best boutique vineyards in the world. We believe that winemaking is an art. Through every wine we source for our clients, we celebrate the diversity, character and tradition encompassed within each bottle - the true spirit of wine.