The United States of Wine
Independence Day has again come and gone. It's one of my favorite holidays because it SHOULD have real meaning for every American. It also gives me the opportunity to watch eyes roll when I tell the story of Jefferson and Adams both going on to their eternal reward on the same day, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and declaring at the end of the story, "Jefferson Lives".
But I like Independence Day also because it also provides an opportunity to contemplate the state of our Union. Spending Independence Day with wine industry folk means that contemplation is focused on the state of our wine union or, better put, the state of our wine industry. This year the conversation rolled around to how to fix the industry.
The idea of "Fixing" the wine industry today seems vitally connected to fixing our economy, which, it appears, is still broken and awaiting an influx of jobs. How can more jobs be created in the wine industry? The simplest way to accomplish that is to get the economy moving and selling more wine. But that again goes back to fixing the economy. Catch 22.
However, myself and my fellow revelers did have the presence of mind whilst consuming excellent wines to discuss what the industry itself needs in order to make it more vital; to provide it with an enhanced foundation by which to thrive when our economy does start to turn around. Below are some of those changes, enhancements and revolutions that are necessary to see the re-invigoration of the American wine industry.
1. Make Wine Drinking An American Pastime
Nothing would invigorate sales of wine more than instilling in the minds of Americans the natural inclination to consume wine. Of course achieving such a thing is the most difficult item on this list. But here's what I know. We are a society who's proclivities are driven by pop culture. We are people demanding to be entertained and who respond to entertainment by emulating those that entertain us. Putting wine visibly into the hands of our celebrities, be they Hollywood, sports or political types, would spur sales in an enormous way. This may sound silly, but someone tell me that "Celebrity Wine Judging" on FOX wouldn't spur interest in wine. Someone tell me that more sports figures making wine wouldn't create interest in wine. Someone tell me that prominent politicians highlighting local wine industries as the exact kind of jobs we need in America wouldn't sell more wine. Someone tell me that more movies and television shows that feature wine wouldn't spur interest in wine. It would, all of it. But, this campaign to place wine at the center of our culture would need to be coordinated. There's the tricky part.
2. Emergence of the Small, Specialty Wholesaler
Many wineries, despite their promotion of direct to consumer sales and shipping, would happily sell a good percentage of their wine to wholesalers if they could work with a small, engaged, wine-knowledgeable wholesaler that really marketed their wines and were not burdened by having to focus so intently on huge mass-marketed brands. We need to see the emergence of far more Specialty Wholesalers in strong and moderate wine markets. These are the kinds of wholesalers that wineries would get forcefully behind and help move goods. We need wholesalers who can not only get behind smaller brands and really market them but also use every ounce of new technology to promote those brands and who also understands the needs of the wine savvy restaurants and retailers in their marketplace. The revitalization of the wholesale tier is vital to the future of the American wine industry.
3 De-mandate the Three Tier System
Giving wineries on the one hand and retailers/restaurants on the other the legal means to do business directly without the use of a wholesaler and to do so across state lines would spur tremendous innovation inside the American wine industry not only in the realm of marketing but in the logistics channel too. While it is a simple task for all involved to assure taxes and fees get paid, the real problem in achieving this kind of systemic change is political. Legislatures across the country would have to be pried out of the hands of the wholesaler lobby who have argued for years that only wholesales are capable of providing the states with an efficient tax collection model. While absurd, this notion is strongly ingrained among policymakers and regulators. Yet, the benefits to de-mandating the three tier system and making the use of the wholesale channel voluntary would play a huge role in re-vitalizing the American marketplace for wine.
4. "Buy Local"
It seems self evident that real and stunning growth within the American wine marketplace could best be found among wine producers outside the primary wine producing states of California, Oregon and Washington, but what's key to the growth of these local industries is a forceful campaign to "buy local". Illinoisans need to commit to buying Illinois-made wines in greater number. Residents of Missouri should be drinking more Norton. Virginians need to be encouraging the growth and prosperity of their local wineries and vineyards. There are trends in place, particularly in food production and consumption, that make this seem possible. But it may take much more effort by local, state-based organizations to truly kick-start the "drink local wine" effort. However, if successful, it means that not only will local wine industries gain more support and greater prospects for success, but also as Americans continue to be the mobile people they are, appreciation for these wines will spread across the country as we bring our affinity for these wines from out past places of residents to our new places of residence.
5. Reduced Mark-Ups in Restaurants
The excessive mark up of wines in too many restaurants is criminal—well, not really "criminal", but certainly obscene. Wines with a $20 suggested retail price from the winery will often end up on wine lists at $50 or $60. Wines with retail prices of $40 often cost $120 or more. Diners who will happily pay a $250 food bill for a meal for 4 people won't balk at buying a couple bottles of wine if it is fairly priced. But when they know that wine can be had at retail for much less than half of what they see it priced at on the wine menu they will often stick with a glass or two. A movement among America's top and medium-end restaurants to reduce wine list pricing will immediately lead to more sales, quicker turn around of inventory and happy diners.