My good friend and frequent travel companion Josh Adler is launching a company that ships wine from France to private clients the USA. He's called it Paris Wine Company, a name I initially hated but which has grown on me slightly since. Unbelievably, the domaine name wasn't already taken, possibly having been passed over as too faceless or ill-targeted. (Pets dot com, anyone?)
Parisians sure won't be buying much wine from him. Parisians by and large don't spend any serious money on wine, and the few that do don't seem to purchase from anyone they haven't known for generations. Josh will mainly be shipping to our fellow Americans, in an importer-distributor-wineseller circumvention that has already teed off several other industry friends. What's good news for private wine clients, these industry friends argue, is bad news for them and the industry they serve.
I can see both sides of the argument. I delve into them after the jump. But the occasion for this post wasn't soul-searching on my part. It was to mention - all philosophical qualms ceding precedence to friendship - that Paris Wine Company is launching tomorrow, July 6th, with a tasting / party at Verjus Wine Bar (75001) at 2pm, featuring superb Angevin vignerons Nicolas Bertin & Genevieve Delatte and Kenji & Mai Hodgson.
So, the industry position asserts that grey market wine sales - by which I mean anyone working around the traditional US importer-distributor-retail or importer-retail model (Paris Wine Co. or various other agents and dealers operating in a similar way) - hurt the vignerons and the people who sell their wine by disturbing the balance of the US wine market. Allowing certain private clients access to wines at import prices theoretically makes the same wines harder to sell in larger volumes to restaurants and retailers. I can sympathise with this point, not because I feel like the existing network of importers are a bunch of pioneer-saints who have struggled selflessly their whole lives to bring us good wine for cheap, but because I and most of the people I know have always purchased wine via restaurants and retailers. We were / are too poor or space-deprived to purchase wine by the caseload, which is what Paris Wine Company offers.
So if the estates working with Paris Wine Company were to lose their traditional distribution entirely, I would consider that a bad thing, because it would mean their wines would become inaccessible to common consumers like myself. It would also mean that those estates would lose the wide exposure that comes with traditional distibution systems, an unsalutary development in the long run. I'm reminded of a lunch in Serralunga d'Alba where we encountered a British importer who had exclusive contracts on the wines of numerous great Barolo producers, Cavalotto among them. He declared that he never sold to restaurants or retailers, because it was a hassle and they never paid on time. As I wrote at the time:
It would seem to me that a market structured that way would make the experience of many fine wines essentially inaccessible to all but the über-rich. You would then have a market in which the mass discourse about wine is fundamentally stunted, i.e. Britain.But it would seem to me that one's acceptance of grey-market or domaine-direct wine sales is dependant upon one's optimism about the industry as it stands in the US. It could be argued that, given the relatively low proportion of wine consumers who actively troll the internet looking for deals and ordering wine for delivery later in the year with the intention of cellaring it for years, domaine-direct sellers like Paris Wine Company will have little effect on the traditional retail model. Ambitious wine collectors can order it one way (at a computer), and ordinary consumers can order it another (at a table in a restaurant, or at a wine shop counter), and the twain won't likely meet too often.
It does admittedly become trickier on the importer-distributor side if wine buyers for restaurants and retailers also turn to domaine-direct purchasing. While this happens to some extent already, it's worth considering the potential consequences of a large-scale decentralisation of the wine distribution market. Prices would fluctuate more; it would become a more burdensome administrative task for restaurants and retailers to stock wine (as they'd have to deal with many more suppliers); vignerons themselves would face greater uncertainty from vintage to vintage, as traditional allocation methods would be somewhat scrambled. Not an ideal situation at all, but arguably one to which the industry will have to adapt sooner or later, given the looming predominance of e-commerce in most commercial spheres, wine included.
Anyway, ambivalence is where I stand on that. I have seen the future and it is murky.
But there are several key services that Adler will be providing that strike me as more benign. Paris Wine Company seems fine as an initial distribution method for young or newly-installed domaines who don't yet produce enough wine to have any significant bargaining power with major importers and distibutors. (Vins Hodgson and Bertin-Delatte both fall into this category.) Adler makes informative promotional videos with many of the vignerons he works with, which helps compensate for the lack of traditional exposure. Additionally, PWC will offer clients stateside shipping on wine, whether or not its PWC's wine. For any wine afficionado passing through Paris this is a supremely useful service that most of the city's big-fish retailers don't offer, let alone the minnow-scale cavistes I prefer to patronise.
July 6th, 2013: 14h-18h: Paris Wine Company Lauch Party, featuring Vins Hodgson and Bertin-Delatte
Verjus Wine Bar
52, rue de Richelieu
Métro: Palais-Royale or Pyramides
Tel: 01 42 97 54 40
Angevin Clan pt. 1: Vins Hodgson
Angevin Clan pt. 3: Bertin-Delatte