Sommeliers Takes on the The 3 Tier System

When you do see an examination of the three tier system of alcohol sales in print, it usually speaks to the rather odd and anti-consumer shipping laws we find in many states across the country. That’s why I was fascinated and happy to see an article in the Sommelier Journal that examined the condition and efficacy of this mandated use of wholesalers from the perspective of the Sommelier.

Written by Napa Valley resident Bob Bath (a Master Sommelier himself), it is a very fair article to the three tier system as well as its critics. And it gets into issues that are very specific to buying wine through the system for use in restaurants.

What clear to me from the article is that as the alcohol wholesalers continue down their consolidating path toward the existence of only a handful of wholesalers that each represents 1000s of labels, sommeliers are going to need to find a way to get their hands on those wines that the wholesalers don’t insist they buy before they can have the "good stuff"; sommeliers will need to find a way to obtain wines that these wholesalers have no interest in representing or being delivery boys for.

The Direct To Trade system established by one of Wark Communications’ clients, Inertia Beverage Group, is clearly one such system. And I think other such system will emerge out of necessity. For sommeliers in places like California and Washington, where real winery self distribution is allowed, the ability to source wines without having to go through a pitch for Mondavi Coastal, Yellowtail or Smirnoffs is available. But for most restaurants, it’s a matter of taking what’s on the list of the few remaining wholesalers in your area and being happy with it.

The Sommelier Journal, now into its 5th issue since its founding earlier this year is doing a wonderful job at covering wine for a sophisticated audience.


5 Responses

  1. Morton Leslie - September 16, 2008

    Every time there is a major consolidation a new distributor pops up offering an alternative. We flock to them to get attention and personalized service, inititally they do well, then they become something to be consolidated themselves. As far as I am concerned they will always be there, always be the same, and we will always have to deal with them. They are the delivery boys. That’s all they do.
    That is because restaurants and retailers don’t pay their bills. If you deal direct with restaurants any distance from home, you get stiffed by a third of them each year. Or something like that. And hell with sommeliers, they talk, they tell you all they know, they order, but they don’t pay the bill. Let distributors take their orders, they are there in the market, they know the story. They can stand in line and wait for the sommelier to give them 30 seconds of face time, but when they don’t pay they can break their legs… figuratively speaking, of course.
    Just give me direct to the consumer. That’s all I want because I get the credit card authorization and we can have a personal relationship.

  2. 1WineDude - September 17, 2008

    What surprised me about the article was how some of those interviewed defended the system. The justifications offered seemed (to me) totally disconnected from the reality of what ordinary wine loving consumers have to deal with on a daily basis…

  3. Amanda - September 17, 2008

    When it comes to wine, there is no ingredient more important than location. The land, air, water and weather where grapes are grown are what make each wine unique. I, as a wine enthusiast, believe that a wine’s true origin should clearly be identified on its label so that I can make an informed decision when purchasing and drinking wine. If you agree with me, you should sign the Petition to Protect Wine Place Name and Origin. By doing so, you are joining a growing list of consumers and wine regions like Napa Valley and Champagne France, in demanding that wine labels maintain and protect the integrity of wine place names. To sign the petition, go to:

  4. Paul Mabray - September 18, 2008

    Morton – thanks for your comments and that is healthy that alternatives come from supply chain constriction. In fact, they should be welcomed and encouraged to flourish so there are multiple routes to access markets.
    In regards to credit card transactions – we have built our program to allow credit card or ACH transaction to reduce collection times.

  5. Scott Young - June 2, 2013

    Please research the alcohol distribution system in the UK and see why in general the US has not made changes to the 3 Tier System (cheaper alcohol, direct to consumer is not always the best thing)…and of course big time lobbying $$$ does help as well (Costco, SWS, etc)

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