Wine Ink: From vine to table and what happens in the middle
It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-November. A quiet time in most ski resorts, just a few weeks before the lifts begin to roll and the tourists arrive for skiing, dining and, of course, drinking.
In a large ballroom in the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, tables have been set up and lined with hundreds of bottles of wines, spit buckets and wine glasses. At 1 p.m., the doors swing open and a crowd of locals who work in the wine industry pour into the room, grab wine glasses and begin to spread out among the tables to taste the wines on offer. There are greetings between friends and soon a din of conversation fills the room.
It may look (and sound) like a Grand Tasting at a wine event like the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, A Taste of Vail or Summit County’s Wine in the Pines, but there is serious business going on, as this room is filled not with consumers, but buyers and sellers. This is the Classic Beverage Co.’s 2018 Aspen Portfolio Tasting and its purpose is to sell wine to the liquor stores and restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley for the upcoming tourist season.
When we walk into our favorite wine shop and buy a bottle or case of wine or order a glass at a local bar or eating establishment, we rarely consider how that wine got there. Sure, we may take a moment to picture in our mind’s eye the place of origin, say an image of a vineyard in Santa Barbara or a Chateau in France. But the process of how that wine came to be in this place is something we don’t think about.
Since the end of prohibition, wines, like beer and spirits, have been sold through what is known as the “three-tier system.” In 1933, the 21st Amendment put an end to the ban on the sale of alcohol and gave states the right to devise systems to control the distribution of alcohol products. Wanting to make sure they had a way to get their cut — the taxes levied on alcohol — most states decided to impose a three-tier system: importers or producers sell cases to a middleman — the distributor — who, in turn sells them to retailers. Notice the end user, the public, is not noted in the scheme.
For better or worse, this has been, with few exceptions, “the way it is.” Distributors, as you may imagine, have become very powerful and very rich. Start a new wine label and the first thing you need is a distributor willing to take your label to market.
Need to buy wine for your restaurant? You need to deal with the distributor.
Now, there are many arguments for and against this system. First and foremost, it must be noted that at each stage, the sale of a bottle to distributor, and the sale of a bottle from the distributor to the retailer, and the sale of a bottle from the retailer to us, the consumers, sees a charge. Say a producer sells a bottle of wine for $4 to the distributor. As a rule of thumb, the distributor will double that and sell it to the retailer for $8, who will then put it on the shelf for $12. This obviously varies considerably, but you can see that everyone gets a piece. And rightfully so.
The biggest pro in the equation is that the system works. It is not the Wild Wild West, with each maker responsible for promoting, selling and delivering wines willy-nilly. There is an organized system and everyone in it knows what the rules are.
Each fall in ski country there are a dozen or so tastings like Classics, organized by other distributors like Breakthru Beverage, Republic Distributing and Southern Wines and Spirits designed to put wines and buyers together. They are large, one-stop shop events so that those who sell to the general public can taste through a plethora of wines and make decisions about which wines to stock for the coming season.
To be sure, these events are not the only way that shop owners and sommeliers are exposed to the wines from these distributors. Almost every day in a resort community you will see reps from distribution companies, both large and small, carrying wine bags in the middle of the day to personal tastings. And it is not unusual for companies to set up regional wine trips with business customers to take their buyers to see the wineries and meet the winemakers.
But in ski country, the Grand Tasting events are an autumn ritual. Lucky us.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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