the return of demon alcohol

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An organization called the Marin Institute, which labels itself an “alcohol industry watchdog” has put out a report that aims to debunk “the myth of the California family winery.” Grandstanding on the steps of the Wine Institute in San Francisco, which it “symbolically” renamed the Big Alcohol Institute, Marin’s report pointed out that “In fact, 7 California wine corporations own 82 percent of the wine sold in the U.S., and 6 of them are global conglomerates who, together with the Wine Institute, work to defeat critical public health policies.”

And what are those “critical public health policies”? Basically laws that hark back to the end of the last Prohibition, prohibit free trade, promote monopolies, and tax wineries – large and small – to the point of vanishing. In language that harks back to long-ago radical groups from the ‘60s, the Marin Institute website calls the Wine Institute “a tool of Big Alcohol that perpetuates the image of California wineries as small, local, and family-owned.”

C’mon, does anybody take this stuff seriously? I don’t live in California, and quite honestly, the Wine Institute has not done a very good job of reaching out to me with useful information over the years, but are they a tool of Big Alcohol – whatever that is?

This is just more anti-corporation blather from someone with a big holier-than-thou agenda as far as I can tell. Here in Washington, the comparable trade organization is the Washington Wine Institute. And since it is funded by wineries, who pay according to their size (which seems fair, wouldn’t you agree?) I guess it too is a tool. But here I can assure you, it’s a tool that does good, constructive work, leveraging the financial muscle of its largest members in order to promote the common goals, and protect basic freedoms.

So what if most of the wine in California (and Washington) is made by companies? Why is that intrinsically bad? Answer: it isn’t. The agenda of the Marin Institute is nothing more or less than neo-Prohibitionism. It takes aim at Gallo, the Wine Group, Constellation Brands, Foster’s Group, Bronco, Trinchero, Jackson, Altria, Diageo and Brown-Forman because they are the biggest commercial wine companies in the country. Guess what? They have earned their success. Like any business in any industry.

I hope that every winery – not just the biggies – and every blogger – will shine a bright light on Marin’s brand of mean-spirited, rabble-rousing stupidity, before it gets out of hand, as it almost did 20 years ago, when Morley Safer and 60 Minutes had to step in with the French paradox to derail those who would like to dictate what, when, how and if we can all drink a glass of wine.

So far, the Wine Institute has not seen fit to respond. But in my view this kind of meat-headed aggression needs to be confronted sooner, not later, and certainly not ignored.


Chris said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Paul. Sure the small guys can make some great wine, but in our free market economy the best of those little guys, at marketing, distributon, pricing, production, etc... eventually become the big guys. That's how it worked for Mr. Ford and Mr. Gates and Mr. Kellogg, why not for Mr. Gallo too.

Steve Winston said...

I have to agree that large wineries can make good wine. Many very large wineries in Spain make great Reserva and Gran reserva wines even in lessor vintages because they have access to so many grapes. However, as a footnote, The Spanish Table is located in one of Seattle's Alcohol Impact Areas which meant that it was more difficult to obtain a wine license for our new store, Paris Grocery. The WSLCB lists six wines as contributing to the street abuse of alcohol. E&J Gallo Winery, Modesto, makes two of them: Thunderbird and Night Train Express.

Scott, The Grande Dalles said...

Having all or the majority of wine in the US and world made by “companies” is one thing, but if those companies are global conglomerates is another. Actually, both are not good. At some point when processes (e.g., farming and winemaking) get large enough they are nothing more than industrial churning out homogeneous products. Where will the singular wines come from?

I also don’t think it is correct to assume that all small, successful wineries want to become global players.

Thibodeaux said...

Altria, huh? Better known by its earlier, pre-greenwashed name Philip Morris. I'd love a complete list of all the brands these jerks own, so I'd never again be duped into spending another dime on them.

Everybody knows Gallo's been a bully for decades. 47947 That was the Berkelely Co-Op member number for the grape strikers' fund in the late '60s and '70s. I used it a lot.

"They have earned their success." Yeah, maybe, but on the backs of whom, exactly?

Thibodeaux said...

Damn! Here's a start. Almost forgot why I call these guys the Evil Empire.


SMWE owns a number of Washington-based wineries, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Col Solare, Northstar, Snoqualmie, Spring Valley, Red Diamond, Domaine Ste. Michelle, 14 Hands and Stimson Estate Cellars. It also owns 3,400 acres of prime vineyards in Washington and contracts for grapes on another 12,000 acres.

Elsewhere, SMWE’s wineries include Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden in California’s Napa Valley and Erath in Oregon.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, the company’s oldest and most acclaimed winery, maintains international winemaking partnerships with the Marchesi Antinori family of Tuscany and Dr. Loosen of Germany. The former produces Col Solare, a luxury red wine, while the latter is responsible for Eroica, the wine widely acknowledged to have started a Riesling renaissance in the United States.

Also in 2006, SMWE formed a historic strategic alliance with the Antinori family to become the exclusive U.S. distributor for the portfolio’s ultra-luxury wines Tignanello and Solaia, as well as Tormaresca, Montenisa, Haras de Pirque and Antinori California.

PaulG said...

Fact is, Altria acquired Ste. Michelle Wine Estates essentially by accident, the prize in the crackerjack box if you will, when they purchased UST. Please don't jam me into some box defending a big tobacco company. What they do with SMWE remains to be seen, but so far the company operates quite independently. My point has to do with preserving a basic right - the right of individuals to enjoy a glass or two of wine without being taxed to death, threatened with prison, or harassed by holier-than-thou groups such as the Marin Institute. And yes, I know that Gallo makes skid row crap and gained their success with some underhanded tactics. I am not condoning any of the above, ok. How about leaving a little room here to recognize some of the good things that the big companies do?

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!