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Sunday on the coast: partly sunny thoughts

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I’ll have more to say about World of Pinot Noir this week, but now it’s off on this cool, partly cloudy morning to the south, and a few days in Santa Barbara County.

(I will also have more to say soon about the movie I’m in, Blood Into Wine, and the way they portrayed — or didn’t portray — my blind tasting. Stay tuned.)

I was reading the L.A. Times this morning over breakfast (oatmeal for health, bacon in hommage to Homer Simpson, and also because there’s been a lot of talk about bacon at this Pinot Noir event) when I came across yet another article on that big fight in New York State over whether to permit grocery stores to sell wine.

Like you, I’ve been kinda sorta keeping up with that story. I understood the issues. I just wasn’t sure which side I agreed with. One the one hand are small, mom and pop liquor stores, who fear that if grocery stores are allowed to sell wine, it will hurt them and maybe drive them out of business. On the other hand are groceries, who argue, Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell wine? It would be a great benefit to our customers, particularly those in rural areas, who won’t have to drive 5, 10 or more miles just to buy a bottle of wine.

Both sides have a point, as is often the case with tricky social, cultural and legal issues, which is why they’re hard to decide. For example, Napa’s winery ordinance is tricky because it pits wineries, who want an extra income stream, against some of their neighbors, who don’t want more traffic, etc. But in a democracy, somebody has to win. In the New York case, I’m siding with the grocers. They should be allowed to sell wine, for several reasons.

For one thing, it’s difficult for a state — in this case, New York — to present a coherent reason for intruding into private, commercial enterprise. Granted, alcohol is a regulated product, but it’s not clear that a State, or county or city, has the right to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed to sell wine. Yes, States have the power to grant liquor licenses, but all things being equal, they shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers. (The one exception I’ll make is that cities should be allowed to limit the number of liquor stores in ghetto neighborhoods.)

For another thing, this notion of letting only liquor stores sell wine is so antiquated, it’s pathetic. A holdover not only of Prohibition but of 19th century attitudes toward Demon Rum, it fails to recognize that wine is now a mainstream, respectable food. Most people who drink wine do so with meals, and in the company of friends and family. Wine is not some narcotic drug whose dissemination must be limited only to certain restricted areas, like prescription medicines sold in a pharmacy. (And even supermarkets, which are just giant grocery stores, contain pharmacies.)

Finally, we have only to look at our state of California to see that letting grocery stores sell wine seems to be doing little harm, if any, to wine stores. At small grocery stores, like 7-Eleven, all they stock are the big distributor brands that most mom and pop wine stores wouldn’t think of selling anyway. At larger supermarkets like Safeway, the selection is bigger, and there may be some overlap between what they sell and what a little wine shop sells, but if there is, it isn’t much. No, what small wine stores sell tends to be either rarer, more expensive wines or inexpensive imports that most grocery stores would never feature. I think of a wine shop like Paul Marcus, in my neighborhood, where you can get wonderful Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian wines for under $20. You’d never see them in a grocery store.

So I don’t think the New York liquor stores, who are organized under a group called “Last Store on Main Street” (an apocalyptic name meant to frighten) really have a case. I suspect New York State will eventually agree to let grocery stores sell wine, if for no other reason than that it will generate a quarter-billion bucks in new license revenues. If there are some liquor stores who feel threatened by open competition, let them upgrade to quality stuff. Consumers will shop wherever they think they can (a) get the best wine (b) at the best price (c) with the best customer service (d) and with the most convenience. They really don’t care if it’s a grocery store or a liquor store, and neither should New York’s (dysfunctional) government.

Old farts? Or rock stars?

At World of Pinot Noir, I introduced a friend of mine, a good-looking ultramarathoner without an ounce of bodyfat on his lean frame, to Richard Sanford, who is the Dean of Southern California winemakers. Hell, Richard is one of the Deans of all California winemakers. When Richard and I get together the conversation occasionally turns to Olden Times, and so it did there under the tent by the sea, where Richard was pouring Alma Rosa for the WOPN crowd. He was telling my friend about the old Sanford label and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard when my friend — whom I like a great deal and admire for his creativity, not to mention the fact that he can run for 100 miles — said something about “you old farts.”

He meant it, I’m entirely sure, affectionately and without malice. We all say things that pop into our heads without thinking. I do every day, and I know it was that way with my friend. Still, it hurt, a little. Maybe it tapped into so much of the crap about dinosaur print writers who don’t get it versus cool young Twitterers who are the wave of the future, yadda yadda. At some point in one’s life and career, you have to start wondering if you’re still relevant — and maybe you find yourself trying a bit harder to prove you are.

So here I am now, in a coffee shop in “downtown” Santa Ynez, nursing a non-fat latte, when I pick up a copy of last Nov. 26’s Rolling Stone. Therein is an article on “the historic concerts for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The musicians included such old farts as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springstein, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Patti Smith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkle, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Ray Davies, Jackson Browne, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sting — and on and on.

You know, I’ve read and heard younger rockers, like Fergie, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Trey Anastasio, Will.I.Am, Shakira, Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, even Adam Lambert credit their musical forebears with blazing paths, breaking down barriers, opening entirely new genres and whole new universes of possibilities that enable pop music to forever stay vital, and to be one of America’s enduring contributions to world culture. And if you ask Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and their generation, they always and happily pay their propers to the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Elvis, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Fats Domino — that list also goes on and on.

For the life of me I don’t know wine writers seem more hung up with generational divisions than rock stars. Professor Saintsbury inspired Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent, who inspired Hugh Johnson, who inspired Oz Clark and Jancis Robinson, who has inspired God knows how many women to believe they can be great wine writers. The writers of the 60s and 70s even inspired Robert Parker, even if it was in the negative sense that he decided to be unlike them, as Elvis decided to be unlike Pat Boone and the Sex Pistols decided to be unlike Journey. Parker, Johnson, Waugh, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken and, yes, Jim Laube inspired me. I have some reason to think, or at least to hope, that I have inspired younger writers, and I know that Richard Sanford has inspired a generation of younger winemakers. Even now, there are brilliant young vintners working up and down California who keep one eye on the venerable past, with all its lessons and wisdom, as they stride into futures filled with hope and promise.

Old farts, or rock stars? Richard Sanford still has a few tricks up his sleeve. So do I.

  1. Ed Draves says:

    Yet another Californian who thinks wine in NY Grocery is a fine idea. As a retailer who specializes in local wines I can tell you that although it will have some benefit to California wines (as evidenced by the donations from California wineries to NY officials the days before this went into the budget)it will devastate our local wine industry. The plan will close about 1000 local wine shops, the ones that carry NY wine and replace them with box grocery wine departments that carry (predominantly) California wine. Our local wineries rely on the partnership they have with local wine stores. Our officials were elected to do what is best for NY State, not California!

  2. Dennis Schaefer says:

    I just wrote a wine column about Rick Longoria and his wines. Rick has over three decades of winegrowing and winemaking experience, having come to Santa Barbara County back in 1976 from the North Coast (Buena Vista). One of my main points was that, in winemaking, like most things in life, there is no substitute for experience. Sure, many Santa Barbara County winemakers made great wines in the perfect vintage of 2007, but few were able to interpret it quite so precisely in the bottle as Rick did. His 2007 reds are great wines, really concentrated but very tightly wound right now. They will need to go into the cellar for up to ten years aging.

  3. Here is my Sanford and Benedict story.

    20 years ago, I worked for a company called The Wine Society of America, who with 2 million of Amex investment, was attempting to sell wine across the country through the three tier system. We had a board that included Steven Spurrier, Alexis Lechine, Oz Clarke and Peter Sichel. Each month we put out a newsletter and sold wine in 12 states. (Pretty much what WineShopper.com was trying 15 years later).

    One night we had a tasting and I watched Peter sip and spit his way through about forty wines in six minutes. Then he came back to the Sanford and Benedict Pinot and said, “this is a great wine”.

    I had tried the wine before and truly thought it was crap, very dark and murky. He said to me, “it’s unfiltered. You need to decant” and he handed me a glass of the decanted wine. I was floored. It was fabulous and sticks in my mind as one of the best wines I have ever had.

    As customer service manager, I started getting calls about the wine. People hated it. I told them to decant it and if they still didn’t like it, we would take it back. Not one ever called back for a refund.

    BTW, I am going to be in Santa Barbara tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon and Wednesday. Care to share a glass of vino somewhere?

    EVO

  4. just wanted to let you know, “Dinosaurs” are pretty cool, especially if they have stories to share like you and Richard. I learned most of my knowledge from “old farts”. Without them you would not have young people getting inspired, so we are glad we have them. Also being relevant is not based on new technology (Twitter) but more so on message. If you don’t have anything to tell using Twitter is not gonna make it any better.

  5. EVO, great story about Sichel, although I don’t know about 40 wines in 6 minutes! Anyway it was wonderful as always tasting with Richard Sanford today. His wines are better than ever and the 2 white Pinots, Gris and Blanc, are spectacular. Thanks for the offer to get together. Unfortunately my schedule is packed..

  6. Dennis I had lunch today with Rick and he is not only one of the great winemakers but a truly wonderful human being, We drank some of his Fe Ciega. Awesome.

  7. Steve, everything you said about selling wine in NY food stores is so right. Thanks for taking this up.

    Speaking as a small NY winery owner we see that the whole NY economy needs grocery stores to be able to sell wine to let the NY grape and wine industry grow. Wineries are also a mainstay to the tourist business that brings billions of dollars into NYS.

    Liquor stores will not go out of business unless they want to. Some scoff at the trade off of mixers and chips but what about the NY artisan cheeses that the consumer pays $36 a pound for? I suspect there’s a reasonable mark up in them. Liquor stores will be able to sell those products and more, and build their adult customer base.

    How can the liquor lobby, which doesn’t even represent all of the liquor stores, hold the rest of the state – taxpayers, wineries, small and large grocery stores, grape growers and allied agricultural businesses, the tourist businesses including B&B’s, family owned restaurants, hotels, stores – hostage over this?

    Probably because we let them. If any New Yorkers read this let your state legislators know, today, that you want them to support the sale of wine in NY food stores.

  8. One might think that the two articles above have nothing to do with each other, but, in fact, they are related in a most interesting way.

    They both have to do with dinosaurs. With leftovers from another age. And as one of the people mentioned by Steve as a dinosaur (but, at least one who inspired him), I recognize the relationship because I have seen changes in the way the distribution system works and I have seen Rick Sanford come into business, and I have seen his reincarnation.

    RE: NY retail. While NY is certainly not the worst example of the hangover that Prohibition has given to wine drinkers (think Pennsylvania and its State stores, for example), it is simply out of date. Here is the second largerst state in the Union and it is still operating by old rules.

    I get the concerns of Mr. Draves about what happens to the existing stores when they now have to compete for business with grocery stores. And I get his concern that local wineries need those stores. Those are fair concerns, and the change will have a negative impact on some stores. We saw the same thing here in CA before the abolition of so-called Free Trade laws. The laws were anything but Free Trade.

    Under Free Trade, all alcohol had to be sold at the posted prices. No one could sell for less, and the required markup was 50% on cost. If you paid $10, you had to sell for $15. Rather than Free Trade, it was totally restricted trade. And everybody and his brother with a license to sell liquor had a guaranteed gold mine handed to him. Existing licenses became incredibly expensive to buy because of the profits they produced for their owners. It was a great system–for industry profits in the short run but it got overturned, in time, when people realized that it benefitted only the small retailers who did not need to compete to get people’s business because their numbers were restricted and their take virtually guaranteed.

    So, Free Trade was abolished here and elsewhere by and large, and a few stores went out of business when big stores began discounting. But a funny thing happened, most small stores began to make more money because they had to figure out what they could sell, and then they had to sell it. I happened to be back in my old neighborhood in San Francisco the other day, and, there, amidst a string of new restaurants of every stripe and shade sat my old friend, St. Clair Liquors, still a one-aisle walk-in with one clerk, but now selling a higher brand of booze and wine than they did in the day when they did not have to compete.

    I am guessing that NY small retailers will have the same experience. A few will give up the game but others, the ones that operate as entrepreneurs, not arms of the government, will become better for the experience.

  9. Hey there Steve, I hope you enjoy your visit to Santa Ynez, if you get a chance pick up our local wine pub “From the VIne” it should be in your hotel or just about any tasting room you go to, I hope you like it.

  10. Hi Steve,
    I so much enjoyed our time together…and no, I am not at all offended by being called an “old fart,” this year I celebrate 40 years of winegrowing in the Santa Rita Hills, so I have been an “old fart,” for sometime. What gives me great encouragement in our wine region is that there is a young and enthusiastic new cadre of winemakers who are not afraid of tradition and experimentation and who are truly “pushing the envelop” when it comes to the growing and producing of Pinot Noir. The best is yet to come, “Old Fart’s” can learn new “tricks” too!
    Regards, Richard

  11. On my bookshelf near the desk are two reminders of why you should never turn your back on a dinosaur — replica casts from a T-rex tooth (some 6 inches long and serrated like a steak knife) and the hooked claw from a Utahraptor, used for the disemboweling of large herbivores.

    Also to be remembered; we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us — honor their contribution and use it to make things better (or to make better things, like great wine!).

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