April 3, 2013

Wine: Distribution laws more than a little ridiculous

By JOE APPEL

I had a wonderful wine last weekend. Maybe you've had it, but I'm guessing you haven't. Not because you don't have impeccable taste, an open spirit or fat wallet. Not because it's an older vintage cellared for years, not even because it's made in such tiny quantities that you have to be on some velvet-rope mailing list to get a bottle.

No, you haven't had this wine because you live in Maine, whose wine distribution channels are legally administered by the "three-tier system." This is the arrangement, developed after Prohibition was repealed, which obligates producers to sell to distributors, who then sell to retailers (either "off-premise" shops or "on-premise" restaurants). In other words, the retailer can't work out a deal directly with the winemaker.

In Maine, we call distributors "importers" and add a fourth tier of our own, the state-licensed distributor. (Whereas in New York, for instance, where I enjoyed the wonderful wine, the importer can sell directly to the retailer.) The official reason for this is a desire to be especially arcane and ridiculous, or to pry more revenue out of us. I forget which.

Anyway, the wine in question was the Jacques Puffeney Poulsard 2010, from the Arbois region of the Jura in the foothills of the French Alps. Puffeney is one of the better known producers in the Jura, and his U.S. importer even has distribution in Maine. But that distributor, faced with a large portfolio of wines in a relatively small market, has to make choices. To offer every available wine would cost money (you have to pay the state for every wine licensed to sell here), and would spread the attention of the distributor's sales staff too thin.

I don't want to put more burdens on Maine distributors, because many of them have worked hard, in the past decade especially, to bring lesser known, more interesting wines made by real people to our corner of the world.

What I do want, though, is for an enterprising sommelier (I guess here we call them "bar managers"), retailer, or even a random waitress or grocer who loves wine, to be able to make the connection. If that wine lover happens to visit Oregon, Otago, Oltrepo Pavese or Ottowa and connect with a winery there (or if she just tries the wine in New York or somewhere else), she ought to be allowed to get in touch with the importer (or even the producer himself), and see if she can get a case or two of the wine to Maine for her to share with customers. But she can't.

It's both puritanical and consumerist, which forces Mainers to eat what we're fed. The puritanism is the state's insane perspective that offering a greater variety of wine for sale fuels alcohol abuse.

The consumerism is classification of wine as a "luxury good," a lifestyle-enhancement tool. With plenty of expensive, "impressive" wine available in Maine for richies and tourists to purchase, why should we change the laws to bring in a Jura Poulsard?

Because it's beautiful. Because it's unique. Because it exists. That's enough.

We don't deny this country's residents the right to read, view or listen to the literature and art they desire just because a particular work doesn't fit some program of maximal business efficiency or satisfy the morals police. We don't say, "Ah, no need for y'all to read the novels of Roberto Bolano; just read Haruki Murakami or Jonathan Franzen instead."

Censorship of wine, or disregard for the importance of its diversity, is just as absurd.

The past decade has seen an Internet-abetted dismantling of the "gatekeeper" structure built by conventional publishers, record labels, movie studios and museums. The free flow of ideas has merged with the free flow of goods, and the coming decade will be even more radically democratizing. This won't be all for the best -- gatekeepers have their place, and can serve as intelligent guides -- but it will be better on balance, and anyway it's inevitable.

And as the explosion of online social media has shown, there are many intelligent guides around if you know where to look. Maybe if I wrote a couple of paragraphs in this Maine-based publication explaining why the Puffeney Poulsard touched me so, some readers would be intrigued enough to try it. If they did, maybe their world would expand just a bit, or soften, or take on another shade of nuance. That's enough.

Wine isn't a luxury gimmick for me, some grape-juice version of rich Corinthian leather. Nor do I appreciate being limited in it because of an underlying assumption that one "good" bottle is "as good" as another bottle. Wine is nothing less than a portal to truth, a way to explore the world.

If the nation goes as Maine does, then perhaps some of us ought to tell our legislators (as the citizens of Washington state did, by the way, in 2011) that a system erected in part to replace Prohibition is obsolete. That humility, grace, connection, labor, beauty, respect and acceptance ought not be constrained by the state and its bean-counter chums.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at:

soulofwine.appel@gmail.com

 

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