Playing Politics In The Wine Industry

A luxurious Barbera with a strong core of cherry and blackberry fruit — a real standout Photo from Roberto Viernes

A luxurious Barbera with a strong core of cherry and blackberry fruit — a real standout
Photo from Roberto Viernes

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past nine months, you probably already know that this is an election year. Politicians are politicking for your vote and your money.

How I do hate to burst anyone’s romantic bubble about the business of wine, but wine does also have its politics. There may not be parties or political platforms, but there are sides and most definitely competition.

It is truly rare to find a wine producer who speaks ill of another. In all my years of traveling the world and meeting hundreds of vine growers and winemakers, they seem to not want to offend each other.

This is not to say that they do not have their own definitive opinions or philosophies on how to best make wine or grow grapes. Rather, I seem to observe that each realizes that they are all students of the vine and that each one comes to their own conclusions through their own teachings, experiments and experiences. The knowledge that what works and is successful for one vineyard and its varietal may not work for its neighbors’ and vice versa. They look upon each other more as colleagues than competition.

Where the rub comes is the competition to sell the wine and make sure that it ends up in the right places and at the right price. This is where a wholesaler or distributor comes into play. (Full disclosure: I also work for Southern Wine and Spirits of Hawaii.) Some wineries are big enough that they have their own staff that is responsible for direct sales to restaurants, hotels and retailers. But the vast majority of wineries do not have the infrastructure or ability to do this. They rely on distributors to take care of these responsibilities for them.

Wineries in the U.S. work exclusively with a single distributor in a particular state. Some states actually act as the distributor themselves. In Hawaii, wineries are free to enter exclusive partnerships with distributors, who purchase the wine from producers or importers and are tasked to warehouse them, get them placed and sold to licensed accounts and deliver the goods.

Some wineries are extremely specific in where they want their wines to be sold. Some dictate that their wines be sold only to restaurants; some go even further and decide which restaurants are able to buy their wines. At the other end of the spectrum, some don’t care at all and are just happy that their wines are being sold, and that when they visit Hawaii, they have somewhere to go to drink their own wines or just buy a bottle off the store shelf.

It is an extremely competitive industry. And here is where politics can come into play. The fight for the right to represent certain wineries and their brands is fierce. Much like commitments from politicians, commitments of cases sold and numbers of accounts sold must be made to the wineries. Each winery must identify which distributor will do the best job for them in each market. You can imagine how aggressively distributors can fight for the right to represent prestigious wineries, importers and brands. It is the lifeblood of their business, their raison d’être. Without anything to sell, they would be out of a job. Now that sounds like a real politician.

Recommendations: 2012 Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris ($15) Drinking this Rose gives me the same feeling as when I see blue skies after a heavy rain: It is refreshing, buoyant and invigorating. 2011 Prunotto Barbera d’Asti “Fiulot” ($18) This has an unexpected intensity level greater than most other Barbera, with a strong core of cherry and raspberry fruit. It is more substantive and luxurious rather than easy drinking: a real standout!