Turmoil in the wine trade. Large wholesale distributors taking over smaller ones, and the employees of the smaller ones leaving to start their own wholesale businesses; men thrown out of work because the new conglomerate doesn't need them; retail wine shops that can't buy a favorite wine anymore, because the new conglomerate has chosen not to offer it and that's that. Angry columns in the wine blogs, about control and arrogance and money, and the consumer ultimately being scr -- shall we say, underserved.
Yesterday a man on the front lines explained things to me and I began to understand afresh. George lost his job as a salesman when Southern Wine and Spirits (the Devil) bought out his employer, Glazer's/Union -- which used to be Chicago Wine Merchants, somehow, if I am unraveling this correctly. At any rate, George went through a harrowing ten days' unemployment, watching younger people get hired around him, while his daughter's college expenses loomed ahead of him in a place called August.
Luckily, the Devil took him on board. But, he explained, many of the wines that he used to know and promote to local retail shops on behalf of his former employer now will vanish from those shops, because Southern will not carry them and its only other big competitor in the area, Judge & Dolph, will not assign a salesman to the south suburbs. Apparently our thirst for wine is not such that Judge & Dolph can justify paying someone specifically to call on us and tell us what's new -- or even supply us with the little that we have shown we like.
I begin to understand because now I can translate this into personal experience. Let's say that I enjoy one of George's wines, a sweet sparkling red from Italy, beautifully bottled, called Rosa Regale. I go to my local wine shop and it isn't there. I try a liquor store, and a grocery store and maybe a gas station. If I am lucky, I might buy one last bottle, and the staff at all these places will tell me -- as I tell my customers -- that we're having a hard time getting a lot of wines in because of all the changes in distributors and vendors this summer. (People look puzzled at this, and who can blame them.) And that's that.
Wine is unique in that sometimes, yes, a type you liked ceases to be available. ("It's not like buying diapers," a colleague of mine used to sniff.) Vintages sell out forever, or a grower chooses to plant different grapes than before, or a winery fails or is sold. But in hunting for Rosa Regale, my problem is not that a delightful wine has gone into that starry purple oblivion where they do tend to go, but that a third party has decided I don't need to have access to that wine anymore. Oh, I could drive to the north suburbs, I suppose, and hunt for it there, or I could call north suburban wine shops and ask if they deliver. In both cases I've spent time bumping my costs up considerably, in gas money and in shipping fees, and local businesses have lost a local sale.
What next? Shop on-line? Here just for a start I find Liquorama, Wine.com, and Napacabs, which offers a good price by the way. But I have to remember Illinois state law, which as of this past June 1st forbids me to buy wine from non-Illinois retailers. So, check Liquorama off my list -- they are in southern California. Wine.com assures customers that it has opened warehouses in many states including Illinois, simply so as to have a retail presence and secure the right to ship wine inside the state. Napacabs makes no such claims but merely avers that it ships to Illinois. Another retail outlet, BevMo! has terrific prices, and presents a drop-down menu with IL as a shipping choice, but it is located in southern California also and clearly has no retail stores elsewhere. I hunt for my zip code. "We're sorry, but ...."
At this point I am tempted to call off my search for Rosa Regale. There are other wines, and maybe it's not that important after all. The wholesale distribution conglomerates heartily agree. They want to sell what suits them in the quantities it suits them as efficiently as possible, which from an economic point of view is perfectly understandable. The head of the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of America put it better than a fiction writer could have devised when he said:
"The American consumer who's complaining that he can't get some obscure frou-frou wine produced and bottled by Croatian virgins is missing the point. The reason he even WANTS that bottle of wine is because of the incredible variety that is already on the shelves. And how did it get there? WE put it there!"
Well, true in part, but that's such an odd attitude for a wholesaler to adopt toward his retail clients' customers. I can't imagine wholesale book distributors or wholesale meatpacking plants swallowing each other up in the race to get bigger, and then, when customers notice that a book or a cut of beef is now hard to find, dismissing complaints by saying, "The only reason you all want frou-frou Chaucer or beef tenderloin is because WE made it available for you." Be content now, in short, with Steinbeck and a pork chop, because that's what we're shipping now. Next week if we find it profitable to ship Mark Twain and chicken livers, you'll get that. And you'd be vegetarians with no reading material at all if it weren't for us.
I see the arrogance in the wholesalers' attitude, but the truth is the distributors do offer more variety more quickly and consistently than any one person could find in a lifetime of self-education and private searching. It's the sheer greed that cuts you off from the search, that makes them sponsor, for example, actual laws to forbid Illinois residents from buying out-of-state wines that Illinois wholesalers have not vetted (and gotten their cut from) that is outrageous, and that will eventually -- I hope -- be no match for the annoyed consumer's wish to buy wine, even from Liquorama or BevMo! of California.
But since I don't want to go to prison for skirting Southern's wine choices for me, I suppose the next step would be to write to my Illinois representatives and senators about my problem, particularly the ones who over the years have accepted thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Illinois wine wholesalers. "Dear Sir, I would like to buy a bottle of Rose Regale wine from BevMo! in California, but it's against the law you sponsored. Would you consider changing your mind about this? It's a very nice wine, and my local stores don't carry it anymore."
Unfortunately, neither of the men who sponsored the June 1st legislation, HB 429 -- Representative Edward Acevedo (2nd district), 109 State House, Springfield, IL 62706 -- or Senator James F. Clayborne Jr. (57th district), 629 Capitol Building, Springfield, IL 62706 -- represents my districts. Which leaves me with the challenge of looking up the voting records, on HB 429, of the men who do. Wine and democracy: a fine pairing. How a propos that Rosa Regale is a festive little bubbly.