Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chronicle of a Three-Tier Crusader

When I got out of college, our country was in the midst of a serious economic downturn. In addition, my nuclear family was being torn apart limb by limb. I couldn’t go home again, because there was no home to go to. For a time I was homeless. My sister rescued me from annihilation, until I got grounded. And then I proceeded to go to New York, in what was possibly one of the worst economic periods that city had ever experienced. My timing was impeccable.

As my East Coast education ran its course, I headed back to The West, where I could see sunsets and horizons, stars and mountains. My father had a little studio apartment, where I squatted for a few months.

It was shortly after that I started on the course that has led me along the wine trail. I started in the three-tier wine industry, in Hollywood, working in a restaurant across from Paramount studios.

When I moved to Dallas (which I recently heard it characterized as “provincially clueless”) I imagine I was the clueless one. Little did I know I would be embarking on a career in the three-tier industry that today is being demonized by some as "stupid”, “conspiratorial”, “corrupt” and “mafia”. The last one is particularly repulsive to me as I consider the use of the word mafia to be as racist as the pejoratives used to belittle African-Americans or Jews.

After I got my footing in little old Dallas, a "flat", "dumb" "flyover" "rail-stop" (other vituperatives I have recorded), I looked around and kind of liked the place. There wasn’t a lot of wine business, but what there was, the people in it were embracing of this tenderfoot and within a few years, I had a place, a career and a community.

Over the years, because of my ties via the three-tier industry, I have had access to some of the great wines and wine people in the world. One day when I was building a display of Glen Ellen Chardonnay, my boss called me and asked me to lunch at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He wanted me to meet Jean-Pierre Moueix, the proprietor of Petrus.I went from sweating an end-cap of Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay to enjoying a glass of 1966 Trotanoy. I was on my way to willingly being corrupted.

I have met many of the great Italian winemakers living and dead. I have dined in their homes and they have dined in mine. You see, we are a world community, not a world conspiracy. Oh yes, we do plot to persuade people to drink better wine. Sometimes we even slink so low as to just get people to switch from iced tea to any kind of wine. We figure that once we get them hooked, they’ll never go back.

Those of us crusaders of the three-tier system aren’t put off by the one-sided arguments of folks who slam the system. Everyone has an agenda. And it is fashionable to find a bad guy, to demonize a standard or a status-quo. It plays into our 21st century drama of hoping people will share our viewpoint because we are victims. Often people look into the drama, not because they feel sorry, but because they crave the joy from the schadenfreude that the drama creates. Everybody loves a winner, especially if they aren’t witnessing it from the losing end. The argument that the three-tier system is bad will always backfire on the people that use the argument because it diminishes their power and it essentially emasculates them. Rather than cursing the darkness, there are those of us happy warriors who have made a life of building brands and bringing wine to the cities and the provinces, to the wealthy and the workers, day by day.

Competition has been steep. The industry has been consolidating since 1987. So those of us in the fray don’t fret over our enemies or our problems too much. It’s part of the landscape. If we lose a line to another distributor, we don’t cry that it is unconstitutional and bawl till crocodile tears flood us out of our accounts. Many of us just know that it isn’t a fair world and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. All part of being a grown-up.

I have really enjoyed all of it; working until 2 or 3 AM, building displays that looked like the leaning tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower, out of corr-buff (corrugated cardboard). I have spent countless evenings doing wine dinners for restaurants, wine classes for universities, wine training for new colleagues and much, much more. I have been part of the army that has grown the American wine drinking population so that online retailers and bloggers could have a platform for their projects.The wine business is changing, as it has been ever since it has been a business. From the time when the Chaldean winemakers negotiated with the wine brokers of the Pharaohs, 4,500 years ago to now in the 21st century. Nothing is easy, and nobody is going to get a gimme every time. The vines struggle. Why do people think they don’t have to? That’s what I call “stupid.”

When I see how many people I touch, handing them a bottle of wine on the floor of my favorite Italian wine store on a Saturday, and then having them flash me the thumbs-up sign as they open it and enjoy it with a handmade sandwich, I know my crusade is a fulfilling one. And while my life hasn’t been filled with non-stop happiness, it has been a good life. And I know my work has been good work. And the naysayers cannot demonize my good work or my good intentions with their glass-half-empty rhetoric.

Some years ago, I got another call from a boss. Again, it was an invitation to come to lunch to meet a winemaker. The winemaker was heading back to his vineyard for harvest and was stopping in Dallas to meet with clients. His vineyard was in the Bekaa Valley, and a devastating civil war was waging at the time in Lebanon. I asked him how he did it, how was he able to pull the grapes and get them to the winery, while tanks rolled through the fields. He answered that some of us are called to make war and some of us are called to make wine. But all of us are called to be warriors in one way or another. And the grapes are growing and they must be harvested. Just as it was done, some 800 miles away and 4,500 years ago, in Chaldea.

The winemaker, Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, and his world, became part of my world that day in the early 1980’s, along with so many of the happy warriors who do the work of their lives, knowing that their livelihood is right. And anyone who has experienced right livelihood, and the excitement and passion that accompanies it, knows that the wine trail isn’t for everyone. But for those crusaders who get on it and get with it, it is a life full of meaning and wondrous expectation.


Anonymous said...

The Economic Impact of the Wine and Spirits Industry in The United States

•Wholesalers alone account for nearly 68,900 jobs, paying $2.8 billion in wages. All told, over 1,173,000
Americans depend on the production, distribution and sale of wine and spirits products for their livelihood.
• These are real people with real jobs, ranging from vintners, to importers, to truck drivers, to waitstaff in bars
and restaurants throughout the United States.
• This is equal to nearly 0.90% of the nation's working population.

TD Williams - TDWine said...

Well stated Alfonso. There's something you and many other hard working wine trail riders have in common that those who demonize three tier for their own selfish profit will never have and that my friend is respect. You certainly have mine.

Anonymous said...

I think the three tier system is a great benefit to the American Wine long as its use is not mandated.

Proponents of the three tier system have yet to explain to me why their beloved wholesalers are dead set against consumers being able to go online and buy a bottle of wine from an out of state retailers.

Until they can give me a cogent, pro consumer reason for this consistent anti-consumer policy position then it will be difficult to take any words they have to say about wine sales and the three tier system seriously.

Tom Wark

Anonymous said...

RT @ericasimov "The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise''

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments. I would say that while I completely understand your perspective, as a very small (200 cases a year) producer (in California), I have had a hard time with the three tier system. I can easily sell my wine in California, but the only way friends in other states can get my wine is to order online. I had four wine stores on the East Coast who wanted to carry my wine and went to their distributors to ask if they would buy from me, but none would - not cost effective - they said.

Having said that, I have never demonized the three tier system and would certainly never denigrate someone with name calling. But hope you understand that there are small producers out there that the three tier system leaves behind...

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks for your comment
What I understand from years of doing this is if you want to sell your wine anywhere, you have to have a hand in it.

John Radford on Spanish wine marketing had this to say recently,"They grow the grapes. They make the wine. They wait for the phone to ring."

And the phone, seldom, if ever, rings.

The personal relationship is the most direct way of selling wine in any time. Hard work, but a proven fact of ours (or any) business.

There are no short cuts, no gimmes, nothing easy. No instant results, no instant gratification, no instant anything. Once the wine is made, that is the beginning of the journey for that wine.

Good luck - keep on plugging - remember your get four "no's" before your get that a "yes" with or w/out the 3-T system.

John Dorminey said...

You are a gentleman as well as enthusiast, Alfonso, which is why you have been successful in this competitively friendly industry. As a former restaurateur, former wine shop owner, former wholesale rep, and now a supplier, you represent my own experiences well. Thank you.
Anonymous winery owner: There are many small distributors on the east coast that would "pass through" your wines to their good customers. One problem lies in the expenses you must incur in each state--label approvals, permits, etc.
Tom Wark: I think you should be able to order direct from wineries especially if unavailable in your market. However, if a distributor, wine shops and restaurants invest in successfully building a brand in a market, they should be able to recoup that investment before a winery "pulls out" and sells direct--especially in the case of the distributor.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Dear Fabius-

I received your comment. I am requesting you re-send it again with an email or website, so that the comment would have provenance and personal accountability, rather than being anonymous.

Thank you!

Fabius said...

Hi, I haven't recived a reply from you.
Like I said in my last message to you, I don't have a copy of my comment.
This is the second time I am leaving you my name and URL, so you can publish my comment any time you like, or if you prefer, email it back to me at so I can post it again!!! Whatever.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks for your comment. You sure look like you are having fun making wine in Spain with all those beautiful young women ;)

Happy harvesting!

Jim~ flowering tea said...

Great post you have here and I had a great time reading your story. This can inspire and motivate people like me. Thanks

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