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How nature and fashion influence alcohol levels and the three-tiered system



In 1999 the futurist Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog galavanized a generation of environmentalists and alternative lifestylists, published “The Clock of the Long Now,” in which he introduced the notion of “pace” into the analysis of history.

Brand came up with six “layers” of human existence;



each layer proceeds at a different pace, in a sort of celestial-mechanical model whereby Mercury rounds the Sun far faster than Neptune. Only in Brand’s model, the speeds are reversed: The outermost layer, “Fashion,” moves at the quickest pace. This is why hemlines go up and down every season on the runway, and why wine writers are able to proclaim new “styles” with each passing vintage. Fashion changes constantly; the mullet is now hopelessly out of fashion. Not that long ago, everybody wanted to look like Andre Agassi.


Brand’s inmost layer, Nature, moves at the slowest pace. Evolution and geology are its most visible indices. The Sierra Nevada has taken tens of millions of years to rise; the Grand Canyon did not spring into existence overnight due to the whimsy of some flood. Not for nothing do we refer to the timespan of Nature as “glacial.” (We can have a discussion of global warming some other time!)


Inbetween Fashion’s furious rush and Nature’s leisurely progression, from inmost to outermost, are Culture, Governance, Infrastructure and Commerce. Culture requires a long time to change; witness the world battles currently underway that have been going on since the dawn of history. Governance is almost as hard to change as Culture, but when change does occur, it can come swiftly, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Infrastructure occupies a sort of midway point between Fashion’s speed and Nature’s lethargy; as we are reminded every time a bridge collapses in America, or our cars bounce over an urban pothole, changing the Infrastructure requires human will, such as that shown by President Eisenhower, a Republican, when he promoted the Interstate Highway System.

Between Infrastructure and Fashion sits Commerce. Brand sees Commerce as occupying a vital place the scheme of things: If it derives its impulses from the outermost layer (Fashion), it risks becoming “unfettered [and] unsupported by watchful governance and culture…it easily becomes crime.” And yet, we don’t want commerce to become too regulated, lest it lose its ability to flexibly react to changing conditions.

We can apply Brand’s “pace” model to the situation we find ourselves in with regard to wine. It is, in fact, a useful tool for analyzing every issue, from the continued popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to the contemporary debate over alcohol levels. It’s apparent that the latter—alcohol content—is purely a matter of Fashion. As Brand writes, “The job of fashion…is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this!” What is in today may be out tomorrow, as Heidi Klum always warns contestants on Project Runway.

By contrast humankind’s liking of wine stems more from Culture, “the work of whole peoples” as Brand describes it, and of Nature itself, “inexorable and implacable,” which somehow has programmed us (and other forms of animal life) to delight in the slight intoxication of alcohol, and in wine in particular, that most natural of alcoholic beverages.

What of the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in America? We can see in this a balancing act between the slow-motion pace of Nature and Culture, which act to keep change from happening too quickly, and the “froth” of Fashion, which, if it dominated, would have had us by now become a nation of Fioletovy Ranny drinkers. There always will be wine critics, sommeliers and others who try to push the nation’s tastes towards the exotic and rare; also always will be pushback from people who know what they like and don’t want to change. This tension—between the more conservative elements and the more radical ones—is healthy. The system itself reinforces dialogue: “the pace layers…provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback [loops] throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

We may even use Brand’s pace system to make predictions. Will the three-tiered system survive? In its favor are the slower-moving layers of Nature and Culture, both of which tend to abhor change and to support the status quo. Against the system’s continuance are Fashion and Commerce: both suggest greater flexibility, innovativeness and individual choice for the consumer.

Between Nature and Culture, on the one hand, and Fashion and Commerce, on the other, lie two key layers: Governance and Infrastructure. The former right now is largely immobile, from many points of view; the U.S. Congress is unlikely anytime soon to interfere with the three-tiered system, while the Courts likewise have not shown that they’re particularly eager to take up the issue (despite the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has resulted in hardly any change, and was in any case a 5-4 vote that could have gone either way).

That leaves Infrastructure as the sole remaining hope for upsetting if not ending the three-tiered system. A nation of consumers that has happily embraced the Internet, with its notions of untaxed online transactions, net neutrality and infinite choice, may decide on its own that it does not want its shopping decisions hampered in any way, by Governance, by Commerce or anything else. As the Infrastructure of online commerce develops in ways that are completely unpredictable, we can be sure of this: The arc bends towards freedom. That is not a good sign for a confusing, paperwork-swamped system that currently restricts what and how people can buy.

  1. Steve,

    Brand is fascinating. His later ideas that environmentalism should now support GMOs and nuclear power (because they have more positives than negatives) certainly shook up the Whole Earth movement that he founded.

    As far as alcohol levels and being a matter of fashion goes, I think it is a bit more complicated than that. For a long time, I think alcohol levels were more a matter of nature. During times past, when wine stability was elusive, alcohol provided a stabilizer of sort. Wine past a certain alcohol level was less likely to ferment again in the bottle, was less likely to grow certain spoilage organisms, etc. Technology obviously has changed so that there are other ways of creating that stability (filtering, etc) and now alcohol levels are more of a choice than in times past (achieved through watering back, spinning it out, etc). — Having said that, a reasonable argument could be made that alcohol levels in wine have been and remain within a narrow range. We are not seeing a noticeable rise of 9% alcohol wines, nor a noticeable rise in 17% alcohol wines. And that this narrow range is defined, and remains defined, by nature itself and the very definition of wine.

    Great post, Steve, and a fascinating wine to look at things.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Don’t wine critics merely enforce the Cab/Chard status quo rather than push towards the “exotic and rare?” Look at your own ratings over the years and it’s pretty clear. Where do you think critics lie in this model… they’re such a fundamental influence but I don’t know where to put them.

    Re the three-tier question: It’s hard to argue in favor of the legal mandate for the system, but from a practical perspective it seems to work much better than today’s direct model. I feel this is due to:
    * Much better logistics (shipping 2 bottles from a winery to Florida costs $25 and can only be done safely for half the year). Going through three-tier, that cost was something like $1 and can be done year-round.
    * Better consumer pricing. In the majority of cases, I can buy the same wine from my local retailer at a price lower than I can direct from the winery.
    * Better buying experience. Buying wine from a winery website is soulless experience that ends with a cardboard box with an invoice left at my door. Compare that to engaging a local retail salesperson to understand more about the wine and why I want to buy it… I’ll take the latter every day.

    I’m all for eliminating the mandate of three-tier, but unless wineries were to address the above issues then I don’t think it matters. The work that Tom Wark and others have done is phenomenal and now most of the country is open to wineries. But, still, consumer direct is less than 5% of the market. Something’s got to happen on the product offering side to make it matter.

  3. John Trinidad says:


    This is an an interesting angel, and while I agree that the Governance and Infrastructure “wheels” are slow moving, I disagree with your assessment of the legal system.

    First, I don’t understand why you conclude that Granholm has “hardly resulted in any change.” As a direct result of Granholm, the vast majority of states have done away with discriminatory DTC regulations, and more than 90% of U.S. adults may now receive direct shipment from wineries. That is a significant change from the pre-Granholm era, and has resulted in the growth of DTC sales. Perhaps you mean that the Granholm decision has not led to the complete dissolution of the three tier system, or that DTC sales have not eclipsed sales through the three tier system. But that was not the plaintiff’s primary goal. Granholm has opened up a direct sales channel for wineries that compliments distributor relationships. There is still a lot of work to be done to get rid of other onerous regulations that make DTC sales difficult, but that doesn’t mean that Granholm has been ineffective.

    Second, your focus on whether Congress or Courts are “eager” to take up wine distribution issues is misplaced. The three tier system is largely a state law issue, and any change will most need to happen through state legislatures, not the U.S. Congress. And as you know, courts don’t just wade into issues on their own volition — they can only decide the cases that are brought by litigants. The focus, therefore, shouldn’t be on “courts,” but on whether industry members are willing to spearhead change through litigation.

    Now, this isn’t to say that the federal government can’t help spur change in wine regulations. Prior to U.S. Supreme Court decision in Granholm, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report on the impact of e-commerce on wine sales, and identified discriminatory DTC laws as a serious impediment to competition. The FTC report played an important role in the Granholm litigation and was cited in the Granholm decision. But if the industry or consumers want to see real change in the Governance/Infrastructure layer, their primary focus should be on challenging state laws through lobbying or litigation efforts.


  4. John Trinidad, there’s much to what you say. I’ll respond simply that following Granholm, I interviewed Ken Starr, who represented the plaintiffs. When I asked him how long it would take for all 50 states to allow unfettered shipment of alcohol, he replied, “At least ten years and probably longer.” I was surprised, because I — and most people I knew — expected the case to shatter the impediments to direct shipping. That it did not was the basis for my statement. Thanks for your comment.

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