Sunday, August 21, 2022

Why you can’t find your favorite natural wine at the local liquor shop.

I’ve often ventured into random wine and liquor stores across the globe. It can give one a cultural snapshot of a sort. What people sell and what people buy. What’s on the shelf and what’s not on the shelf. I’m often baffled, sometimes surprised, but seldom disappointed. I mean, we’re not looking for King Tut’s tomb in Flower Mound, Texas.

What intrigues me about any selection one finds in their local liquor store is the polarity between what the buyer thinks will sell and what some of us folks want to see in the store because it personally resonates with us. And I have to say, natural wine and the selection, or lack thereof, can offer a sociological cautionary tale, here in the bowels of America.

Years ago, when I was in the trade and was responsible for making sure the portfolio selection of the company I worked for (a large one) was viable, I often wrestled with the need to have wines that sold and made money for the company versus bringing in wines that were trending up in popularity, even if among a small subset of the population. It was a wrestling match, usually with a higher-up, who only wanted the bottom line to matter – the metrics. But to keep young buyers’ attention, one also needed to hear what they were saying about what it was they and their clientele were interested in. What really drew the dividing line in the process was something we see in nature and evolution, all the time. The German forester Peter Wohlleben wrote in his book, The Inner Life of Animals:

“What we understand as a finely tuned balance between prey and predators is in reality a harsh struggle with many losers.”

I recall one person, who was so convinced that the big wine machine in the sky conspired against the little producers. They would go off on me and the company I worked for, as if it were a plot against all they stood for. It was nothing of the sort. But try and convince folks who think there is a conspiracy afoot when there isn’t. Who really knows anyway? And who cares to argue with someone who is so easily pulled into that quicksand?

But there is a universe of validity in trying new things. And now we’re seeing natural wine stores popping up all over the country. We have a really nice one in our town, and even my little Italian store has a small area set aside for those wines.

Still, go into a large liquor or grocery chain and try and find something like the Angelo Negro unfiltered Bianco from the Arneis grape. Or the Poderi Cellario – È Grino! - a Grignolino dominant wine which comes in 1-liter bottles, which is juicy and lip-smacking delicious. Yeah, not going to find it in your local Albertson’s. Could have found it in my local Whole Foods until recently, when the Amazon gods descended upon Whole Foods with their spread sheets and their shelf set diagrams and took some of the energy out of the section. All praise the algorithm! 

It's commonly accepted that until something is “mainstream” it can be a bit of an upstream slog. When it does become part of the set, then what happens? Is it still cool? Desirable? When is it just a matter of evolution and when does the unthinkable happen? When that someone actually takes a chance on something unknown, at the time, and puts it on the shelf?

Natural wines are here to stay. Actually, they’ve been here for some time, they’re just now being rediscovered by upcoming generations. Oh, they’re putting their own unique stamp on the products, with graphic labels and cutting-edge names, along with a plethora of styles, prices and colors (it ain’t just orange wine anymore). I do wonder how the acceptance of this category among the larger companies has/will dilute the energy, initially brought by the younger generation, into the larger conversation about wine in the 21st century.

Look, wine was first a natural product, way back in the beginning, and then, over hundreds, if not thousands of years, it underwent a process of refinement, just like we’ve seen in food, in architecture, in art, in social interactions. And now, with everything undergoing a reset, will success spoil the spontaneity of this category?

I’ll try anything. And when I find a product I love, like the Angelo Negro unfiltered Bianco, it becomes part of the entourage of wines in our house that we open on a regular basis. Similar to the way we eat. Sure, I love my fried chicken and catfish, but if I find a gluten free and vegan taco that I like at my regular Tex-Mex place, it goes into the rotation, somewhere between cheese enchiladas with chili con carne and stuffed poblano peppers with ground turkey, queso fresco and Texmati rice. This is us, these days. More inclusion, less aversion.

The thing about wine, like people, you find the ones you like, and you stay away from the ones that don’t personally resonate with your sensibilities. It’s a different approach than the standard business one. I mean, I totally get why bean counters want everything to be a best seller in their warehouses. But not all products can be the king of the jungle. Again, that “harsh struggle with many losers.”

But one never knows which one will become dominant. And even taking that out of the equation, what about products that are available, not because they outsell everything else, but because new shoppers are looking for it?

When I ran a wine list program for an Italian restaurant, I put a few wines on the list that I knew most diners would never order. But I kept them on there because someone just might recognize it, be it ever so esoteric, and say, “Hey, the wine buyer put something on this list that sings to me.” It’s not always about the metrics or the algorithm. It’s about personalization. Something chain grocery and liquor stores just haven’t augured as well as boutique wine shops and stores specializing in, say, natural wine.

Should we be traumatized by that? Well, it is their business and their right to make whatever decisions they deem necessary to keep the lights on and the doors open. But it’s not that difficult to be a little more inclusive, especially to ascending generations and groups.

So, even though you and I might not be able to find our favorite natural wine at the local liquor shop, they’re a whole lot easier today to find than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Hey, try finding fertile eggs or raw milk cheese 30 years ago versus now. The epoch we’ve arrived to is so much more inclusive and brighter, so much  more is out there.

Just waiting to be discovered.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

1 comment:

Jane Kettlewell said...

Agree, Alfonso. But I wonder if buyers for mainstream chain accounts remain wary of stocking natural wines on account of concerns regarding inconsistency, fragility and uncertain shelf life. Natural wines have made significant strides in quality in the past decade, but the average Costco customer probably expects a certain degree of consistency and predictability in terms of their purchase. Also, it maybe asking too much of Costco staff to conduct the sort of handsell these wines often require. Specialist independent stores and restaurant accounts, on the other hand, have trained staff, able to interact with customers and explain the wines they're selling. Maybe the natural wine category is just not quite ready for its mainstream chain account close-up, at least not just yet.

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