Tag Archives: three-tier system

The Comet Lovejoy wine phenomenon

comet lovejoy wine

But how do they get a bottling line up there?

Astronomers were surprised to find that some comets produce alcohol, as well as sugar, as they travel around the solar system “We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France.

This is huge news, given that one theory supposes that comets crashing into the the Earth 3.8 billion years brought with them the carbon-based organic molecules, like alcohol and sugar, that may have jump-started life on our planet. Which is all well and good, but comet Lovejoy wine raises equally important questions for those of us who worry about those things:

• Do the comets know about the three-tier system? Lovejoy was producing the equivalent of 150,000 cases an hour, and we all know that the country’s distributors aren’t going to let that happen without them. They’ve paid entirely too much money to state legislators to let a comet ruin things. And I can only imagine the horror if Lovejoy passed anywhere near Pennsylvania, with its state store system.

• Will E&J Gallo, the Big Wine producer that has made hundreds of millions of dollars of acquisitions this year, buy the comet to add to its portfolio? A sweet Lovejoy red, since the comet threw off sugar, would slide in nicely next to Gallo brands like Apothic and Barefoot on grocery store shelves. And how could a back label that said “Comet Lovejoy wine — out of this world” miss?

• Can the Winestream Media adapt its tasting notes to comet-produced wine? Toasty and oaky, given how cold it is in space, just aren’t going to work. Maybe something like “hints of vacuum linger on the finish”? And how do you a score a comet wine? Does it get 92 points just because it’s from a comet? Or do you take points off for that, since outer space is not Napa Valley?

Photo courtesy of Adam Block Photos, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 381: Direct shipping, consolidation, Prosecco


direct shippingLots of kinks to work out: Direct shipping, despite its successes over the past decade, is still a tiny part of the wine business, just single percentage points of the $17 billion in sales. One reason for that, of course, is three-tier, which makes it difficult for wineries to ship to consumers in different states. And three-tier has more to it than even those of us who think we know it can imagine; witness the lawyer suing Illinois wineries for not charging sales tax on shipping fees. This is perfectly legal in Illinois, where the law allows private attorneys to recover unpaid taxes on behalf of the state. Much of the coverage has been critical of the attorney, but that misses the point. Illinois law is vague on whether sales tax should be charged on shipping fees, so how how can direct shipping ever become more than a niche business if laws crucial to its success are as vague as the Illinois law? Because, given three-tier, this is certainly not the only vague, poorly written, or unclear law dealing with the subject.

Retailer buyout: Majestic Wine, one of the biggest retailers in the United Kingdom, has bought another British retailer, Naked Wine. This is bigger news than it seems, since Naked Wine has a trendy U.S. division that sells what can best be described as craft wine on-line at discounted prices to its members. It means that Majestic, facing tremendous competition from grocery stores, is trying to find wine that consumers can’t buy at grocery stores. Given the increasing importance of supermarket wine sales in the U.S., this may be a sign of things to come in this country (within the confines of three-tier) as retailers look for exclusive products to fend off grocery stores. It’s also another indication that retailers want to get bigger to fend of the Costcos, Walmarts, and Aldis of the world.

Nuts to Champagne: Prosecco has passed Champagne in sales at British grocery stores in news that is so shocking — given the British love affair with Champagne — that it should worry not only the Champagne business, but retailers around the world. If the British are buying Prosecco, the Italian bubbly that is at least half the price of Champagne, what does that means for retailers elsewhere? Has Champagne priced itself out of some markets? Do consumers prefer the softer, sweeter taste of Prosecco? Or are grocery stores playing a role in what’s going on? Even the story, from a British trade magazine, had a panicked tone.


Winebits 375: Grocery store wine edition


grocery store wineThis week, how grocery stores are changing the wine business:

Suing the state: Texas doesn’t allow non-residents to own more than five liquor stores, unless the owners are related to each other. This “just us kinfolk” exception (as a lawyer friend of mine calls it) has allowed Texas-owned chains like Spec’s and Twin Liquors to put together hundreds-store operations. It’s also why Walmart is suing the state to overturn the kinfolk law and why it and Kroger are pushing two bills in the state legislature to eliminate the exception. Neither are likely to go anywhere — courts have traditionally ruled in favor of these kinds of laws, citing three-tier and its constitutional protections, and the legislature almost always avoids offending the big Texas liquor chains. Still, that Walmart and Kroger are willing to spend the money on a seemingly hopeless cause speaks volumes about how they think the world is changing. Starting now may give them a chance later to reform beer, wine, and spirits retail sales in Texas.

Stopping at the supermarket: Nielsen reports that U.S. grocery stores (including Walmart, Costco, and their ilk) sold $8.6 billion in wine in 2014, which accounted for about 42 percent of the country’s store-purchased wine. In other words, almost half of the wine sold in 2014 came from a grocer. Imagine what that number would be if Pennsylvania and New York allowed grocery store wine sales. We can write about Robert Parker all we want, but that’s not the news in the wine business. The real news, the development that wine writers should be paying attention to, is that most of our readers have no idea (and don’t care) who Parker is, and they want to know what wine to buy at their Walmart or Kroger. Which is why a grad student named Mark Thornton may be the next Parker.

One more time: Speaking of Pennsylvania, its state house has approved a bill to end the state’s liquor store monopoly. This is apparently as much a tradition in the Keystone State as Punxsutawney Phil, and makes as much difference in changing the law as groundhogs do in forecasting weather. Still, the debate is fun. Said one lawmaker: “The other side is talking about the No. 1 drug, alcohol, like it’s milk and bread. We’ve got to have more of it, more convenience, for the No. 1 drug in our communities.” The other side, that wants to reform the system, didn’t miss a beat, either: “Even Russia and China have given up on the idea of a state-run monopoly.” So you’re a commie if you oppose reform, and a crack dealer if you support it. Politics is a grand business, no?

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