Archive for the 'wine politics' Category

France is a “banana republic” says Guffens

When the fraud squad raided Verget from Verget.

Jean-Marie Guffens, a winemaker in Macon who founded Maison Verget, endured a decade-long investigation by French authorities, including Customs and Fraud office. It started in 2001 after the grapes were harvested but before the winery staff had even filed the harvest paperwork. And it continued ebbing and flowing, with allegations that Guffens was blending wine from the south into his Burgundies. In the 27-minute video, Guffens declares that “we live in a banana republic” with “mafia-style” raids including a surprise winery inspection with 25 officers, and accusations of complicity against the staff. His wife and members of the staff were even held in custody for two days. Eventually, in 2010, the charges were dropped. Guffens sued to have his name exonerated and– SPOLIER ALERT!–a judge in Beaune ruled in his favor in November.

This action and the heavy-handed tactics over Olivier Cousin’s whimsical labeling, set against the backdrop of declining domestic wine consumption, illustrate the difficult days for many French vignerons. I’ll add it to my file for updating Wine Politics.

New Jersey wine law: half a case is better than none

bada bing What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New Jersey? Surely, the local wine, right?!

That’s what state legislators were hoping when they voted a reform to New Jersey wine law this week. With the governor’s signature, which he has said he will provide, the state will become the 39th to allow the direct shipping from wineries to consumers. After Granholm, the 2005 Supreme Court decision that found it unconstitutional to allow in-state wineries the right to ship to consumers while out-of-state wineries were prevented, New Jersey was one of the rare states that didn’t open up shipments, but instead closed down.

The new law is certainly worth celebrating but don’t think about popping Champagne unless it is purchased at a store in NJ. The most glaring shortcoming is that the bill only legalizes shipments from wineries, not wine stores, thus disallowing free trade in over a third of the wine consumed in the US. For reasons of parity, that’s too bad. But since there are many innovative wine stores and the state has become one of the most competitive in the country, New Jersey residents are still well-served.

Anyhoo, not all wineries can ship to New Jersey under the new law, just wineries under 250,000 gallons (about 85,000 cases). These “capacity caps” are controversial and were struck down in Massachusetts (at a threshold of 30,000 gallons) as a form of discriminating against out-of-state wineries, which was what Granholm said was the big no-no. Further, wineries must purchase a license to ship, which is among the highest such fees in the country. Cathy Corison, proprietor of Corison in Napa Valley, tweeted “NJ opens up to direct wine shipment. $938 annual fee. Gee… thanks. #smallwinerytax.”

For an additional fee, licensed wineries are allowed to open more than a dozen tasting rooms for direct sales throughout the state, which also seems to advantage in-state wineries. But if an out-of-state winery opened a store, it would be a new and fascinating challenge to the three-tier system. (In this vein, Chateau Montelena just opened a “tasting room” in the Westin hotel in San Francisco; New Jersey also has many BYOB restaurants.)

So for NJ consumers, it’s a half-a-loaf law. It’s better than the status quo ante. But not ideal since buying wine from, say, NY wine stores is still illegal (and thus, I’m sure, never happens). New Jersey wineries may be the biggest beneficiaries of all as they can expand in-state (and out-of-state!) sales. Time to bone up on the terroir de Jersey Shore (although this map is much funnier).

What do you think? If you are a winery or New Jersey resident, are you excited or non-plussed by the change?

Aid Olivier Cousin goes global [AOC]

olivier cousin
Although we mentioned it last week in a squib, it bears mentioning again: the French authorities have threatened Olivier Cousin, the horse-tilling vigneron that is a mentor for many younger ones, has been threatened with a $50,000 fine and two years in jail.

His transgression? Goofing around with names. The biodyanamic farmer of 25 acres in Anjou told Jim Budd that he left the AOC system in 2003 because it was too lax. “I stopped because the AOC is for industrial wines as the rules permit everything: weedkillers, huge yields, additives etc.” He thus marketed his wines as vin de table, the category at the bottom of the French administrative category as few are bold enough to do (as I detailed in Wine Politics). He marketed one of his wines as “Anjou Pur Breton,” which somehow made it past the authorities for several years despite containing a place name and a grape name (Breton is a local name for Cabernet Franc).

His distributor wrote “AOC” allegedly for “Anjou Olivier Cousin” on cases of his wines. This, coupled with his refusal to pay obligatory dues to an association, was the straw that broke the administrative camel’s back: He has been threatened with a significant fine, possible jail time, and one of his bank accounts have been impounded. The decision of how to proceed now lies with a prosecutor in Angers.

The crackdown on this sympathetic figure appears to have backfired. Thanks to the global reach of the internet, awareness of his treatment is high. Over 500 people have signed a petition on a French blog, his American importer is also mounting a campaign for signatures, and his UK importer is helping pay his legal bills. It’s sad that the Loire, site of so many distinctive wines that offer France a calling card overseas, is also the site of clashes with a moribund bureaucracy.

Wine politics: Oregon congressman supports HR 1161 & more!

kurt schrader Representative Kurt Schrader (right), whose district bisects the Willamette Valley, has taken an odd stand: he’s signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that would hurt small wineries.

HR 1161, which we have discussed previously, would limit judicial challenges to state laws on the interstate shipping of wine (and beer and spirits). If this bill were to pass, it could impact wine shipments negatively and irrevocably. Consumer choice could be reduced; many small wineries depend on the wider margins of direct sales to keep in business. HR 1161 was written by beer distributors.

While distributors are well-organized and the bill has over 100 sponsors, wine consumers might have thought they could consider on representatives whose districts include wine production as allies. Apparently not.

Vintners in Oregon’s fifth district are dismayed, as the Statesman Journal reports. “This is all about money,” Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vintners said. A spokesman for Schrader said the representative “does not allow contributions to his campaign (to) impact the decisions he makes on questions of public policy.”

In other wine and money news, Steve Grossman, Massachusetts state treasurer whose office regulates liquor sales, raised $45,000 from the industry at an event last month according to Boston.com. The sum represents a quarter of the total he has raised this year. Few out of state wine retailers will ship to Massachusetts as a result of its wine shipment laws and a federal court had to overturn state policy that limited wine shipments. An aide to Grossman said it will not affect his policy decisions.

Prohibition’s lingering bad taste [Ken Burns]

Prohibition Disposal

If you’ve turned on PBS during the past couple of nights, you’ve probably encountered slow zooms and pans of black and white photographs. And the people in those photos may have been women protesting saloons or men using hatchets to destroy barrels of whiskey. Yes, these are scenes from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s three-part series, Prohibition.

I’ve seen the first episode (available here online), entitled “A Nation of Drunkards,” that chronicles the social and political forces that led to enacting Prohibition. Part of it was that men were drinking Herculean amounts of whiskey. As Ken Burns told Stephen Colbert, men were each putting away 180 bottles of whiskey a year. To which Colbert replied: “How did we conquer the West?” Another factor was the rise in political activism among women. The episode is well done and very much worth watching.

But the one that I am most looking forward to is the concluding episode that airs tonight. It’s not because Read more…

Vodka: nyet! Wine: da!

medvedev russia wine Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came out with a counterintuitive approach to fighting alcoholism in his country: drink wine. During a recent visit to Krasnodar, a leading wine region, he said: “Wine making is one of the sectors that should be developed to help contribute to the eradication of alcoholism.” As this informative post over on FT.com reminds us, it was only a generation ago that Gorbachev led an anti-alcoholism campaign that included symbolically plowing under some vineyards.

If Medvedev’s approach has a similar ring to it, that’s because Thomas Jefferson also advocated wine as a drink of moderation as opposed to the “ardent spirits” of his day (mostly whiskey). Although Jefferson’s appeal fell on deaf ears, Medvedev’s has slightly more hope: the FT post says that as Russians travel, they favor wine over vodka. Also, Russia today, unlike the USA of Jefferson’s time, actually makes a fair bit of wine: Statistics vary, but it is somewhere between the seventh and thirteenth largest producer in the world. In fact, Medvedev made the call in the region of Krasnodar, which is on the Black Sea and is the home of Sochi, host of Winter Olympics in 2014. So expect more coverage of Russian wine in the next couple of years as they try to shake off the image that their wine is only one step above paint remover. (One sign that they are succeeding may be that the largest sparkling wine producer is having an IPO.)

Surprisingly, the eight liters of wine per person that Russians already consume places them only slightly less than the US and much more than their fellow BRIC countries, which are all under two liters per person.

But if Medvedev really wants to take the Jeffersonian mantra to heart, he needs to purge the market of non-grape, ersatz wines that give real wine a reputation for cheap swill and cut taxes on wine instead of raising them. As Jefferson declared, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.”

Congressional Wine Caucus sips under the radar

The New York Times ran a front-page story on Congressman Mike Thompson recently. Thompson’s district includes Napa and he is also a grape grower; the article made this seem like a conflict of interest. I’d dissect the story and its shortcomings but Mike Steinberger has already done that on his blog, thus saving me the trouble.

The article did remind me of the Congressional Wine Caucus, an informal, bipartisan group of over 200 members of Congress–“the anti-Tea Party” as @sippingsister put it–that Thompson heads. Although most caucuses rarely meet, I placed a call to Thompson’s office (as well as the Wine Institute) requesting the names of the members of the Caucus. My thinking was that these members would presumably be stalwarts in supporting wine consumers and opposing the nefarious HR 1161 if that well-financed bill should ever see the light of day in the chamber. Sadly both responded to say that the list of members is not available to the public. That’s too bad since wine is becoming more popular in congressional districts every year across America as we are now the thirstiest wine country in the world. Also, wine in America is frustratingly intertwined with political machinations. Since it’s not hard to find out who is on, say, the Congressional Bike Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus, you’d think wine would be no different.

If the membership list ever does surface, I hope there’s no overlap between Caucus members and the 94 cosponsors of HR 1161. That would have more than a whiff of inconsistency.

New legislative bill threatens the diversity of New York’s wine market

Chain wine bottle Last week in the NYT, Eric Asimov highlighted the wine program at Nice Matin, a restaurant on the Upper West Side that has remarkable breadth of offerings, depth of vintages and sharp pricing. This apparent wine lover’s idyll was not always this way: only in the past few years have the owners built up the wine program, in part by purchasing the cellars of now-defunct restaurants. Further, the wine director “prowls through a network of collectors and winery owners, seeking mature older vintages to add to the list.”

Across town and upstate, specialty wine shops such as Chambers Street Wines and Crush Wine and Spirits or Grapes the Wine Company, often broker collections of rare older wines that individual collectors are selling. And even though wine auctions have shifted to Hong Kong with astonishing speed over the past couple of years, the gavel still does come down on wine lots at places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s here in New York.

All of these facets of the wine business mean that, with a bit of effort, a wine enthusiast can hunt down an enormous range of rare bottles in New York. It is arguably the best city on earth for wine lovers.

But the status quo is under threat thanks to new proposed legislation in Albany. Read more…


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