Washington Initiative 1183

I find the stark differences between the distribution and retailing of alcohol on the one hand, and almost any other consumer product on the other hand, to offer a fascinating commentary about US society. No doubt the contemporary wine and spirits industry remains a potentially interesting, if unwritten, chapter in the history of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

In a previous post, I discussed the bizarre shipping prohibitions that still encumber many wine buyers. Today, my attention was drawn to a Wall Street Journal article on a ballot initiative in Washington state aimed at replacing “hundreds of state-run liquor stores with private retail outlets” while also allowing “retailers to buy liquor directly from distillers and negotiate volume discounts.”

To add to the intrigue, rather than an instance of grassroots mobilization, the initiative is being sponsored primarily by corporate interests. Costco has funded almost the entire “Yes” effort, while the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have funded almost the entire “No” effort. The State is involved too, seeing privatization as a chance to generate more revenue. As a result, “[i]t isn’t clear whether a consumer buying a bottle of whiskey would see prices go down.”

In other words, no matter who wins the initiative, consumers may not come out ahead, even though their “interests” are allegedly at the heart of the matter. Instead, what appears to be at stake is simply how the liquor pie gets divided. Costco and Washington state want a bigger piece, while the existing wholesalers and retailers are reluctant to give up what they have had since the end of prohibition. How’s that for reform?

Shipping Wine Is Not A Crime

In 2010, America became the world’s largest consumer of wine, surpassing France for the first time. We consumed nearly 330 million cases — 200 million cases from California, 105 million cases from other countries, and the remaining 25 million from other US states.

In other words, shipping is fundamental to the enjoyment of wine. And yet, nearly 80 years after the repeal of prohibition, access to wine remains severly restricted. Under the current regulated system, consumers pay 18% to 25% more for their wine than they would otherwise.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that states lacked the authority to discriminate against out-of-state goods, including wine shipments, as doing so violated Commerce Clause. And yet, 37 states continue to restrict residents from ordering wine from online retailers and auction houses, or joining wine-of-the-month clubs.

Now, H. R. 1161 — aka the “Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2011” — “seeks to reaffirm state-based alcohol regulation.” In essence, this bill would overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling, and reward the current wine oligopoly for its political contributions.

In the past decade the National Beer Wholesalers Association spent $5.6 million on lobbying and the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America spent another $9.3 million — all in an effort to keep wine from being shipped.

It is time for wine lovers to say enough is enough.

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3 Wines Under $10

Over the holiday I took three wines, each of which cost $10 or less, to one of the family gatherings.  The wines included:

Arthur Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles California 2006 — $9.99

Nine x Nine Zinfandel Lodi California 2006 — $9.99

Bodega Norton Malbec Barrel Select Mendoza Argentina 2006 — $8.99

I had high hopes for all three, especially the Arthur Hills, as finding a decent California Cab for $10 has become almost impossible. Unfortunately, my search continues. The Arthur Hills was by far the worst of the three wines. It had a bizarre nose — think some combination of rotting organic matter and petrol. On the palate it was watery thin with flavors of strawberries — but of a decidedly artifical nature. At any rate, not what you want from a Cab. In short, this is one of the worst wines I can recall drinking in a long while. After a few sips, it went down the drain. It looks like the Gun Bun Cab gets to retain its title as the best California Cab under $15.

Next up was the Nine x Nine Zin. I was hoping for perhaps an alternative to Renwood or Dancing Bull. Certainly for $10 I had no expectations of Ridge… Alas, for me, this wine was also a disappointment. Mind you, it was not so visibly flawed as the Arthur Hills, but it was still just a bit beyond the borderline of acceptable. Of course, in wine as so many other things opinions vary; one of the other wine enthusiasts at the party thought it wasn’t so bad.

The third of the three turned out to be the best. The Norton Malbec was fragrant on the nose and full and lush in the mouth. It would benefit from a bit more grip on the palate and a little less ripenness, but overall, this was a drinkable wine. I have also recommended this wine to some friends who reported back that they enjoyed it very much. Although the Norton will never be mistaken for Kaiken, it is perfectly adequate for social gatherings and everyday drinking.

Wine Rants And Raves

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a few mixed cases of wine at the local wine and spirits store.  While we’ve not made our way through all of my selections yet, below I provide some quick picks and pans.

First, the Mas Donis still stands out as one of the gems in the bunch.

From Italy we enjoyed L’Oca Ciuca Toscana The Drunken Goose 2005 ($8.99) — 40% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot, 30% Shiraz / Syrah, and the Vitiano Falesco Rosso 2005 ($11.99) — equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese.  The Vitiano should be widely available and cost about $8 for those of you not living in a monopoly wine state like Pennsylvania.

From France I can recommend the Chateau de la Tuilerie Attrape Coeur Vin de Pays D’Oc 2003 ($9.99) — 60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Wine Spectator gave it 89 points.

There are ocassions which call for a wine that is inexpensive but not visibly flawed.  For example, when you’ve already gone through one too many good bottles, but the night is not quite over…  I picked up the Lindeman’s Bin 50 Shiraz Australia 2007 ($6.99) for such an ocassion and was pleasantly surprised.  Keep in mind, we probably already had one too many.

From South Africa, we’ve had several vintages of the Goats do Roam Red over the years.  The 2006 ($9.99) is a solid offering.  I’ve actually served close to a case of this one in the last 2 months. 

Perhaps my favorite was the Mapema Primera Zona Mendoza Argentina 2002 ($19.99).  A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec and 20% Merlot, this wine is basically an Argentinean Bordeaux.  Overall, this is a very complex wine with a long, long finish.  My wife and guests raved.

There were also several disappointments in the batch, including the Meridian Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2006 (too much oak, too little fruit), the Piping Shrike Shiraz Barossa Valley 2006 (the Lindeman’s was better for less than half the price), and most of all, the Green Point Shiraz 2005.  Robert Parker gave the Green Point 90 points.  However, I have now served this wine 3 or 4 different times over the course of several months and found it to be a repeated disappointment.  Perhaps it needs more time in the cellar.  That’s where my remaining bottle will stay for a while.