Sunday, December 18, 2005


The Wide Whirl of Wine

Sickie, my duck, it's just madness, isn't it? Imagine if Burger King had one set of sodas, and the 7-11 a different one, and McDonald's yet a third. Blood would run in the streets, I tell you! Or corn syrup would. Something.

Something sticky and marvelous with corn chips from the heater box by the gas station restrooms! And you wouldn't like that, would you? Because in America, we've pretty much codified the whole buying and selling of objects into predictable ways. If you want to buy a soda, a pillowcase, or a cat, you can go someplace where the sodas, pillowcases, or cats will be either in the variety of bad, good, better, or best, and the variables will tend to restrict themselves to under a thousand. You might, say, get a young cat, a yellow cat, a one-legged cat, or a cat that lays down with parakeets. But in no instances will you get a cat whose qualities are hidden behind strong glass and labeled in pidgin hybrid shorthand composed of language and habit from two dozen nations.



Usually, usually you will know even from the outside of the store, or the outset of the situation whether you are getting involved with a good pillowcase, or cat. For instance, bad cats are gotten from men in black satin capes in graveyards, and they will transform during a full moon into something that must invade Iraq. Good cats are gotten from dotty heiresses in limousines who entrust their estates to you so that you might best instruct the butler on what size crystal compote best fits an unmolded can of mackerel.

But I digress.

As I see it, Sickie, there are about five basic reasons that the wines that you fall in love with on wine lists mostly aren't at the store.

1. Restaurant-only allocations

There are wines, mostly from California, that are sold exclusively, only, and ever to restaurants--not to people. There are no reliable figures, but my guess is there are a few hundred restaurant-only allocations these days. It all started when the first group of brand-new, super-prestigious California wineries debuted themselves, and began making wine in small runs. These wineries were mostly the efforts of second-career zillionaires who were in the game for the prestige and fun, and didn't want their few wines to disappear once they made them, they wanted them to be on restaurant wine lists where they could show them to their friends.

Then in came the second wave of restaurant-only allocations, wineries that saw this restaurant-only allocation policy as an extremely focused, efficient way of marketing. I asked Annette Peters, the former import manager for St. Paul's wine powerhouse The Wine Company, about this, and she explained it thusly: Wineries that designate restaurant-only allocations, she says, "feel like the visibility they get on the wine list is extremely important," especially compared to the anonymity of a bottle abandoned on a store shelf. Also, says Peters, "wineries that sell most of their wine in a restaurant develop a higher 'price-image' for their wine."

What's a price-image? It's the thing that makes you think things are supposed to be expensive! This can also be an important way of introducing a new wine brand--for instance, if you see Snookums's SnickerDoodle Estate Pinot Noir during fancy, expense-account dinners at $80 a bottle for a few years, and then one day you walk into a store and see Snookums's Plain Old Pinot Noir for $25 a bottle, you'll likely get really excited and take some home, thinking you scored a great bargain.

Another marketing maneuver is for a winery to put a special label on their plain old wine, and then sell it at a discount to a big restaurant, just to get people to taste it. "Joy Sterling from Iron Horse [a California winery famous for its sparklers] struck a deal with Palomino/Kincaid's, selling a prestigious $200-a-case wine at $160 so that they could sell it by the glass," says Peters. "This was a brilliant move. The promotion and publicity makes it worth it to the winery, because it exposes thousands of people to the wine." It's good for the restaurant, which gets to pour a high-quality wine, and it's good for the consumer, because you get to buy a glass of bubbly for $9 that would ordinarily cost $14.

2. Fake restaurant-only allocations

Of course, the world of good restaurant-only allocations brought in a secondary universe of what I call fake restaurant-only allocations. See, restaurants hate it when you know their $8-a-glass Chardonnay retails for $8 a bottle, and the really big chain restaurants have found a way around this. They'll get a winery to make them a special "restaurant-only" wine for, oh, four bucks a bottle, and sell it for eight bucks a glass or $40 a bottle. And unless you're inside the company you'll never be the wiser. I couldn't get anyone to go on the record with this one, but rest assured, if you're dining in big chain restaurants, it's not just the food that's bad.

3. The wine-lunatic factor

Meanwhile, there are small, independent restaurants like Alma or Solera where the proprietors are so madhouse crazy about wine that they basically import their own. Well, okay, technically, they do go through a distributor (in case you're reading this down at the Liquor Board), but for all intents and purposes they do it themselves, finding the wines, arranging the contacts, etc. You'll never find some of the wines on La Belle Vie's wine list because they are the only ones who have them. End of story.

4. Powerhouse buyers--or, the Manny's factor

Meanwhile, at Manny's, they buy maybe a half-million dollars worth of wine every year, and put it in the closet. The wine that's on their list now was bought mostly three to six years ago. "Most restaurants, and of course most liquor stores, sell wine like it's the produce at Byerly's," says Manny's general manager Randy Stanley. "First available, freshest available. Of course, we only serve wines we consider ready to drink, but we're sitting on close to $1 million worth of wine that's just hanging out, aging. A typical '96 [on Manny's list today] is something we'd have bought in '99, and would have been in one of our temperature-controlled storerooms since then." So if you fall in love with that typical '96, too bad for you. Unless you can get in the way-back machine and travel to '99, you're not going to be able to buy that wine.

Which is to say nothing of the years of personal relationships that Manny's has built up with California wine makers. Jerald Hansen, wine buyer for Manny's, has been traveling to California for the restaurant since '94, and buys lots of Manny's wine on handshake deals with people he's known for years. Joe Cafaro, August Briggs, Trent Moffett of Livingston Moffett: If those names mean anything to you, you already know everything in this story. If they don't, these are guys who sell very, very lovable wines. And when they come through town they stop at Manny's, and when Manny's folks are out there, they visit them. And they're all friends, and so if they have only five cases, or, even merely 18 bottles, of something wonderful, they make sure it gets to their friends.

You, Dear Reader, you live in the world; you know how that goes. But don't people who have a desirable object in short supply tend to have a lot of friends? Yes, but they might not have the travel budget that Hansen does. "I'm going out [to California] in February," he says, "to stop by and say hi, to keep the handshakes coming, keep the wine coming."

5. The Tipsy Casbah

Finally, there's the final group of wacky variables, which I'll call the Tipsy Casbah/Phone Tree. Wine in the great state of Minnesota is sold by some 40 distributors, which range in size from a single operator/owner to a company employing several dozen people, and pretty much the entire business revolves on these folks and their long afternoons and evenings of sipping wine, chatting, gossiping, and wheeling and dealing. There are so many variables that I'd guess that half of the bottles in town land wherever they do because of some bizarre confluence of three or more of the following factors: weather, currency exchanges, personal charisma, shipping accidents, old college roommates, mysterious reselling from other states, wineries going out of business or being bought, foreign romances and revenges, local romances and revenges, bankruptcies and breakdowns, social intimidation, favor trading, political trends, amateur economic fortune-telling, horoscopes, unplanned pregnancies, misplaced enthusiasms, inspirations of genius, revelations of taste, and, you know, more.


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