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Rotten Deeds and Noble Accomplishments
By Linda Murphy
May 25, 2010
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Oenophiles know that noble rot (Botrytis cinera) as a fungus that, when it develops in healthy, ripe grapes, causes them to dehydrate, intensifying their sugars.  Winemakers turn these shriveled nuggets into deliciously sweet, honeyed dessert wines, such as Sauternes in Bordeaux and Tokay in Hungary, although the weather conditions have to be just right -- with enough moisture for Botrytis to form, yet without heavy rains that damage the grapes and allow rot to destroy the grapes from within.  It’s a fine line between noble rot and nasty glop.
 
Recent wine industry developments have me thinking about noble rot -- as in noble accomplishments and rotten deeds.  Unfortunately, I must start with the bad before I get to any good:
 
Rot:  If HR 5034, a bill introduced to Congress by beer wholesalers and supported by wine and spirits wholesalers, proceeds through committee and is approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate, it would greatly reduce consumer choice in the wines they purchase, and how they purchase them.  It could also mean ruin for small wineries that rely on direct-shipping of their wines to consumers, rather than relying on a shrinking list of wholesalers to sell their wines.
 
HR 5034 was written by the National Beer Wholesalers Association and is endorsed by the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America organization.  Several Representatives and state Attorneys General have announced their support for the bill, and while it has not yet reached the House floor, it’s headed that way.  If HR 5034 becomes law, it spells the end direct shipping of wine and other alcoholic beverages in most states, and blocks the opportunity for wineries and consumers to go to court to argue against shipping restrictions.
 
By strengthening states' rights to control alcohol sales within their borders, HR 5034 protects the three-tier system of distribution (winery sells to wholesaler, who sells to retailer, who sells to consumer) and allows states to discriminate against out-of-state wine shippers.  This restriction would be exempt from challenges in court, such as the one in 2005, Granholm v. Heald, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution makes it illegal for states to discriminate against out-of-state shippers, if in-state shippers are allowed to do business.  Everyone must play by the same rules, the Court said.

So along comes HR 5034, which would halt all efforts to deregulate alcohol sales in the States, giving each the opportunity to determine which wines its residents can purchase, and from whom.  Wholesalers are betting that Congress will fall for their claims that HR 5034 will help prevent alcoholism by giving wholesalers control of the sales of alcohol; keep booze out of the hands of those under 21, because they would have to make their purchases in stores, rather than on the Internet; and prevent “frivolous,” costly lawsuits that challenge states’ rights to control alcohol sales.

But the wholesalers’ real intent is to destroy competition from direct shippers, and to be exempt from antitrust laws.  HR 5034, should it pass, will prevent consumers from ordering wine from producers and retailers, even if those wines are not carried by their states’ wholesalers.  Distributor consolidation has drastically cut the number of wholesalers in the U.S., and it’s nearly impossible for small wine producers get the attention of wholesalers, who cater to the big companies -- Constellation, Diageo, Fosters, etc.  The little guys won’t have a chance if direct shipping is taken away from them, and wholesalers are uninterested in them. 

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia currently allow some form of direct-to-consumer wine shipping (some only after losing post-Granholm lawsuits).  HR 5034, titled the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010 (CARE, for short, as in “We only care about protecting our profits”), would allow states to revert to laws established at the end of Prohibition, in 1933.  That’s progress for you.

So how do wholesalers expect to prevent underage and excessive drinking, when they don’t deal with consumers, and will continue to sell as much alcohol as they can?  Their claims include an outrageous one: that under-aged consumers will have easy access to alcohol via the Internet, thus the need for HR 5034.  What teenager uses a credit card to order wine online, then waits two to five days for it to arrive, in order to get a buzz?  It’s easier and quicker to ask an adult to purchase wine, beer and spirits.  And besides, FedEx, UPS and other shippers require proof of age before they hand over packages containing alcohol.

CARE’s under-aged argument is a crock.

If you agree -- or not -- go to www.contactingthecongress.org for an easy way to e-mail your representatives in D.C., and register your thoughts on HR 5034.  Many Congressional leaders accept campaign money from beer and wine/spirits wholesalers, and thus are beholden to support this anti-consumer, anti-small winery bill.  Please tell them, now, what you think, as loudly as you can.

Noble:  The International Riesling Foundation (IRF), an organization of producers formed in 2007, has a mission of educating consumers, trade and media on all things Riesling. 
 
Its “Riesling Taste Profile” helps wine buyers know the relative dryness or sweetness of a particular bottle of Riesling, and it’s explained on stickers applied to the bottles.  Each sticker has a scale labeled “Dry,” “Medium Dry,” “Medium Sweet” and “Sweet;” producers print an arrow on the scale to show consumers what style of wine they’ll get if they purchase that wine. 
 
It’s an optional guide, and, thankfully, a growing number of wineries are using the scale to communicate the sweetness levels of their Rieslings.  To learn more, visit the Foundation’s website.
 
Rot:  Despite the wine industry’s growing concern about recycling, its carbon footprint and its need to reduce production costs in tough economic times, some wineries continue to put their wines in heavy glass bottles.  I recently received a bottle of a 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that weighs 5 pounds.  It’s from a new producer, and while I’ve yet to taste the wine, the ridiculous, barbell-like bottle leaves me with a negative impression of this fledgling producer.  I hope the quality of the wine changes my first impression, and that these new vintners, and so many others just like them, back off on their bombastic bottles.
 
Noble:  The amount of wine shipped to me in Styrofoam inserts continues to shrink by the week, to the point where those still packing their bottles in polystyrene stick out like a sore thumb. 
 
The use of recyclable shipping materials -- cardboard, molded fiber and plastic -- is a no-brainer; why put all that Styrofoam into landfills?  Yes, there are some recycling sites for polystyrene, yet consumers may live 100 miles or more from one, and there are no curbside recycling services for this material.
 
A story in the May-June 2010 issue of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine describes how tests on the breakage-protection and insulation properties of environmentally friendly and polystyrene shipping materials showed they are equally effective.  Some winemakers suggest that polystyrene protects wines better during shipping in hot and cold weather, yet this appears not to be the case.  I welcome the day when curbside-recyclable wine shippers arrive at my door.

Rot:  Silicon Valley Bank’s 2009-2010 “State of the Wine Industry” report warns of flat growth from depressed restaurant sales, higher unemployment levels, more winery foreclosures, depressed consumer spending, and wines priced between $50 and $125 trapped in a “dead space,” as cash-strapped wine lovers look for value.

Noble:  Silicon Valley Bank also predicts that consumers will find continued discounting in 2010, as producers sell their wines to wholesalers, retail shops and restaurants at bargain prices, which are passed on to consumers.  Wineries are loath to cut prices in their tasting rooms, because they hope the economic crisis subsides soon, allowing them to return to business as usual.  Yet for the near future, according to SVB, wineries will discount to the trade and make backroom deals, with the savings passed on to consumers. 

Despite the well-documented struggles of the U.S. wine industry in the last two years, this is a great time to be a wine consumer.  Many high-end wines are deeply discounted, so stock up now.  Value wines priced at less than $20 abound, and more such wines are in the pipeline, as producers declassify high-quality juice to meet the market for lower-priced wines.  Restaurants have added more affordable wines to their lists, and have begun to sell some prestigious wines by the glass, so that diners can have a gulp of the good stuff, without springing a couple hundred bucks on a full bottle.