Category: Beverage Industry

This impromptu post for the industry marks something of a return to the blogosphere for me after a lengthy hiatus as I sorted out aspects of my personal and professional life. I’m on a bus from Baltimore to New York and just had some ideas running through my head. It may be wordy, but this is how my brain works.

Maybe this goes somewhere. Your feedback is appreciated.

Much of what wine “is” to all of us in tier three (in the prevailing US three tier alcohol distribution model)—beverage directors and wait staff, retailer buyers and associates—is built on thin ice, swamp land, and dreamy clouds. There—I said it!

We are all taught to buy into the “magic” of wine. Amorphous ideas such as terroir, sense of place, varietal typicity/correctness, images of simple farmers making the “right” decisions in process, and others serve to add definition to our understanding of what constitutes “wine” and how we relate what we taste/experience to others. (Craft beer has similars having taken on the illusion of scientific measurability of quality with the romanticizing of terms like IBUs, and original gravity.)

This is the language we use to market and sell to our customers—the end consumer. When selling and telling the story of a wine to our customers (what I call “story selling”), we tell our customers about the winemaker’s philosophy, the small patch of land with a south-west facing slope, and the calcareous soils and other such romantic things that if/when forced under close or scientific scrutiny, may fall apart underfoot as unassailably connoting quality or measurable value—it may just be malarkey.

This is a difficult conundrum to face as this realization may make it seem we are selling a lie. But this is not entirely or, even, remotely true. All that romance is real and does matter whether it actually shows in the bottle or not. Those are the things that push a wine that we really enjoy for the visceral pleasure the aromas and flavors bring to us into something we can believe in, philosophically align with, fall in love with, and want to sell. These connections we make with the amorphous concepts boost our pheromones and imperceptibly affect our enjoyment when tasting.

So, why does this discussion matter if the veracity of these “magic” concepts doesn’t really matter? Because, honestly, most customers want to be sold on the magic, whether it’s hooey or not. When have you ever sold a wine on the merits of its chemical composition, measurable phenolic compounds, and residual sugar or ABV? (Sure, some people want the highest-alcohol wine they can get their hands on, but at that stage you are no longer selling wine, you are selling alcohol as a commodity with grape juice as its means of conveyance.)

Years back, I visited a winery and fell in love with the place; the simple farmer lifestyle of the winemaking family; the quirks of their personalities; the sense of their “goodness” through their kindness to us and the animals they took in as rescues. I tasted the wines and they were fantastic! Were they objectively better than those in their category? Maybe perceptibly a bit more than some and a bit less than others. The romance of amorphous ideas created a subjective perception of qualitative superiority. Even understanding the measure of malarkey I was susceptible to, I would sell these wines as much on the merits of that magic as the quality and value in the bottle. I better understood the background of the wine and using that translated into saleability.

It is like suspension of disbelief when watching a movie. The plausibility of a situation or the scientific accuracy of a plot device should not matter so much if it is relevant and helps propel the story forward. You may recognize the incongruity, but if the story is strong, it won’t diminish the film as a whole.

So, accept the conundrum. If a customer calls, “malarkey!” it doesn’t diminish the magic to you or others, it only forces the measurables (perceptibly measurable, that is—fruitiness, earthiness, and other more universal descriptors) to the fore of your strategy with that customer.

A Glass of Grey

grainy tanks

Anyone who has peeked in on the irregular posts in this insignificant corner of the internet has seen one of my occasional rants about dishonest wine gaining shelf-space, mouth-space, and head-space (see here, here, here, and here, for a few takes). “Dishonest” wine, to me, is:

  1. (Generally) large production. (Not in and of itself a bad thing.)
  2. Largely produced from purchased grapes or juice not grown or stewarded by the “winery. (Again, not a negative in a vacuum.)
  3. Made with all available fruit rather than that selected for quality as a vehicle to use otherwise undesirable fruit. (While this can save a small grower and/or winemaker in a bad vintage, we’re talking mostly large-scale stuff here—see #1 & #2. This is where things start to get dicey.)
  4. Chemically and physically manipulated, sugared, and shaped into a consistently base and, ostensibly “inoffensive” product “vintage” to “vintage”. (Here we meet processed wine-product which is evocative of wine but not, at its heart, wine anymore.)
  5. Driven by labeling and other marketing designed to deceive the consumer into believing they are buying a product no different from an honest wine: an agricultural product made by a farmer and craftsperson as a labor of passion for the land, fruit, and quality. (“Dishonesty” achieved!)

Are you lovin’ it, yet? Sounds like fast-food, right? For all intents and purposes, it is. Lab designed and factory made to meet the lowest common denominators of taste (in this case, fruity but not specifically so, silky textured, low acid, and slightly sweet to keep you coming back for more), and marketed as a lifestyle choice. The only thing that separates these wines from fast food is alcohol and the related TTB regulations that assure that the wine need not be labeled with ingredients or standardized FDA nutritional labeling above a minimum alcohol threshold. This assures that shades of grey and lies of omission are commonplace.

This angers me. Deeply. And I am not alone. So, many of us in the industry who care about wine, wineries, vineyards, the land, farmers, families, and honesty continually preach to our choirs—those who listen to us already share much of the same ideology— the message rarely making it to the people who most need to hear it most.

Monday, respected and internationally-read New York Times wine writer, Eric Asmiov, vocally joined the fight with a well-intentioned, well-reasoned, and well-written blog post reaction to the polarizing writer of a popular but (admittedly, from only the excerpts I have read) sophomoric drunken adventure memoir I refuse to give further attention. The best thing he does in it is characterize the above types of “wines” as “bad wines“. Sure, I can hope that Asimov’s tremendous reach will bring the gospel to more people. But, the reality is that he’ll largely only reach the choir like the rest of us.

See, the universal perception of Asimov is of a stodgy, close-minded oenophile (as he defines it)—just like me and most winelovers who write about their passion. The other writer is just fun-loving and out for a good time—what’s not to like about that? Asimov explain it pretty well, but I will add that good people are ultimately getting hurt in this misunderstanding of wine. Small, family winemakers who farm their land and passionately bottle what they can to make a living are compromised greatly, sometimes to the point of shuttering, by the perception that a lifestyle brand filled with a wine facsimile is the same as what they pour their entire lives and souls into.

But you already know that. You are the choir.

First vlog on one of the events I attend to find wonderful wines seeking representation in the Maryland/Washington D. C. market. Please forgive any quirks or mistakes—I am exhausted.

drinktuition screenshot

I have finally gotten my act together and made a semi-proper website for my business. Just nuts & bolts, really, but I like the simplicity, color-scheme, and the images. Hopefully, clients will find something of use here. Eventually, I’d like to integrate this blog, vlog with live tastings and educational bits, and connect a password-protected area for clients with access to marketing and POS materials, etc..

Anyway, it’s another baby-step in fool…er, believing in my vision for my business, my happiness, and my future.

Clockwise from top-left: appointment tasting with a supplier, multiple floors of hungry wineries, regional tasting seminar


Monday morning I take a flight from Baltimore to Chicago for the World Wine Meetings at the Embassy Suites Downtown/Magnificent Mile. This marks my second trip to this event.

Much was learned in my first trip. More or less an exploratory adventure under the auspices of my fledgling consultancy and a small local importer/distributor, last year’s visit was largely me flying blind. An exhausting itinerary of tasting appointments, educational seminars, and glad-handing had me in a daze for most of the three days. I met several wonderful international producers who are un- or under-represented in the US as well as a few quick visits with some old friends whose wines I adore.

Once I had the chance to sort through all my notes, I made some cursory connections between some of the producers and the wholesaler on whose behalf I attended. Our little tasting panel enjoyed some real gems and, hopefully, some of these wines will find near-future homes in the MD/DC market.

I can’t imagine the toll on the suppliers who have to meet with dozens of us a day repeating the same Q&A and mining potential customers for an inkling of hope that they may create a working relationship. They have my utmost respect and sympathy.

This year, I am better prepared for the event and with a couple more wholesalers interests in play. A more resolute purpose should make navigating the nearly 300 producers and 30 scheduled appointments over the three-day event less chaotic for me and provide more time to process as I experience. I plan to blog throughout, so keep your eyes open if, for whatever reason, this aspect of the business interests you at all.


This is a reaction to this article originally reported by the Akron Beacon Journal and expounded upon best (so far) by Food & Wine here.

The premise of the suit is that WalMart willfully deceived customers into believing that their private-label beer brand, Trouble Brewing (get it?!?), actually brewed by Genesee is a true “craft beer” brand justifying a higher price point than non-craft beers. The shock here is not that WalMart took this circuitous route around forthrightness but, rather, that it wasn’t presumed to be the case from everyone from the start. I believe that there is a huge measure of caveat emptor in play here.

Keep in mind, that private label beer, wine, and spirits have been made for Costco, 7-11, Total Wine, Walgreen’s, Trader Joe’s, and many huge or widespread domestic retailers selling any alcohol throughout the US. This is nothing new. There is a measure of subverting the truth with nearly all of them, generally lies of omission. Where is the line drawn for true deception, though?

If I were a craft beer drinker in Boise Idaho shopping the beer aisle at the Overland Road WalMart Supercenter the first thing that would come to my mind when seeing Trouble Brewing (made in 2,285 miles away in Rochester, NY) is economy of scale—that in order to feed WalMart’s massive empire, this beer can not likely be a true “craft beer” made in a small brewery run by a couple of bushy-bearded beer-lovers chasing a dream. I have accepted these products in in practice and, to some degree, in theory because the waters have been muddy for a long time now. “Craft beer styles” (read: non-American adjunct lagers) are produced by several large, otherwise uninteresting breweries—from SABMiller to Sam Adams—to under the guise of being truly “craft”. It is largely a semantic argument at that scale. These Trouble Brewing beers are, at this stage in the game, virtually no different from the relatively high-production stuff that their sister brands, Pyramid and Magic Hat, foist upon the public from neither a quality nor truth in marketing perspective. These beers are simply a product of economy of scale to feed the vast WalMart supply chain and, I am sure, everything about them speaks to that, from the sophomoric packaging and marketing to the reportedly uninspired flavor profiles.

Make no mistake, this suit was not brought forth by innocent consumers who were shocked into action when they discovered they were duped. Craft beer drinkers are largely one of the most discerning, self-informed, and vigilant consumer segments in the world and this suit was brought forth by a craft beer consumer bent on enforcing transparency. As anyone who has ever read this blog will attest, I am absolutely for fighting for transparency in marketing, but I don’t genuinely believe that the wool was really being pulled over anyone’s eyes in this instance.

The core consumer that may toss these beers into their cart along with small appliances, housewares, toys, diapers, cookies, and cleaning supplies is probably not largely the core craft consumer up-in-arms over this. Most consumers outside the craft beer enthusiast market likely don’t care if it’s really a “craft beer”, only that it provides a favorable experience for the price. The argument in the suit that Walmart inflated the prices for the beers to put them in line with other craft beers as a deceptive practice is spurious. Honestly, many large-scale “genuine” craft beers have inflated pricing. All that matters is what the market will bear. If consumers feel they are getting good QPR from this stuff, what does it matter how much profit WalMart makes on it? Profit margin is their business.

To the larger part of the claim—the deception of craft provenance —WalMart may be trying to emulate craft beer, but nowhere on the packaging do they directly claim “craft” or its similars in any way.  The brewery is listed as Trouble Brewing with the same Rochester, NY address as many of Genesee’s other contract brewed products. This is all pretty easy to discern if you are a consumer who cares about that stuff. And that brings me back to my point that the vast majority of people inclined to even consider buying this stuff do not care about provenance as long as they don’t find out that it was made by poor children with a heavy metal-laden water source next to an electronic parts reclamation farm.

The clues of provenance, and scale, and, ultimately, honesty are all there in front of us with these beers and many other products that we just don’t care enough to be cognizant of and reactive to. No one can deceive you unless you are open and available to the deceit.

None of this is to suggest that I have grown less vigilant in my own pursuit of transparency in marketing. I strongly believe that there is a pervasive problem in marketing within an industry where the only regulations of import have to do with taxes and very little of substance to do with consumer protection. But this is another instance where we do not seem to take enough personal responsibility for our consuming habits. It is incumbent upon us to engage ourselves a bit more in our buying habits if we care about this stuff. Once we have made that commitment, the mere subterfuge becomes white noise and we can zero-in on the genuine deceit. Otherwise, all of the after-the-fact griping and class-action suits hold no water when real hard-core deception that actually hurts people comes along.

Black Falcon (Falco subniger)

One resolute bird.

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons made a curious and rare decision to listen and respond to its fan-base (press release). Upon the opening of its new stadium, the NFL franchise will charge far more fair and reasonable prices for its concessions.

Long irksome for sports fans, the cost of concessions has reached a point wherein it can cost more for a beer than a seat on a given night. Increasingly, only those named Walton, Hearst, and DuPont are able to enjoy a family outing to the ballpark complete with sustenance through the often four-hour events. To be fair, concessions are luxuries—not truly necessary to the enjoyment of the game—but they are, and should be, part of the experience (and can be the key to maintaining a positive experience/sanity for those with children). But, at what point is it reasonable for a team or venue to dictate the terms of bankruptcy for a family to enjoy the ostentatious luxury of some dogs and sodas?

Atlanta Falcons CEO, Rich McKay, no longer believes those terms are reasonable at all. Why? Because research consistently showed that concession prices, quality, and wait times ranked as the worst of all fan experiences. This is across all leagues, teams, and venues.  The Falcons, who just completed a new stadium, had the opportunity to right that wrong and lead the charge on new paradigm.

What does any of this have to do with the wine/beer/spirits industry? Well…in short, everything. Recognizing and reacting to broken practices is key to any business’s health, particularly when relating directly to customers. The lessons from the Falcon’s decision are powerful. What McKay and his team realized is that doing things the old way just because that is “how it has always been done” is not a sufficient excuse for poor customer relations. Sure, there’s lots of money to be made on jacked-up soft pretzel prices, but is it worth the cost of a positive overall fan experience?

Alcohol beverage retailer—are you buying a 10-case QD deal on National Brand × Red Blend and still selling it at full markup? That’s fine, but you must give your customers enough credit that they likely know what the competitive price should be. Trust me, your customers may be loyal as a matter of convenience but they shop around.

The Falcons identified this need to treat their customers as knowledgeable consumers and not simply as cash machines. They realized that there was a long-term cost associated with overcharging their customers in the concession lines and that is that they would likely eat and drink at tailgates before the game and hold off on the second beer or soft pretzel inside the stadium opting instead to save the money and get a proper meal after the game. In the short-term, under the old model, they may make better margin but they will have significantly lower volume.

The difference for you is that you do not have the captive audience that a sports franchise has. If a ticket-holder wants a drink or food during the game, they have to pay the whatever the concessionaire charges. If a customer walks into your store and doesn’t like the prices they see on the products they like to buy, they can walk out and go somewhere else. The Falcons still made the decision to cut their concession prices even though they have a captive audience because the trade-off of lower volume over time coupled with constantly disgruntled fans was not worth the extra margin on the short-term. You need to think the same way.

Respect your customers. Listen to them. Find ways to appease them—be willing to cut prices on what should be high-turn products, trial run customer requests at less than standard mark-up to be competitive with the market at-large, etc., and be fair and reasonable in finding alternatives to your customers when it simply doesn’t make good business sense to do exactly what they want. You are in this business for the long-haul anyway—the short-term margin losses will be made up over time with greater volume and happy customers.

Remember: there are always ways to make up the difference in margin. You can never make up the difference in lost customers.

A Bold Return to the New

Hello, long-lost friends and new contacts!

The drinktuition blog took a hiatus as life and rapid-fire changes in plan got in the way. Today marks a rebirth of my blog now aligned with the exciting foundation of my consulting business of the same name.

Here’s a snapshot of what my business is really about:

The drinks industry can be a daunting web of regulations, purchasing decisions, inventory management, staff training, marketing, and whatever else is thrown at you. drinktuition aims to demystify, simplify, and fun-ify the business you thought you were getting into.

As a consultancy, drinktuition will provide services that make simply doing business more efficient, better-targeted, and just plain easier to on-and off-premise accounts across Maryland—even Montgomery County! A unique perspective and strong contacts and friendships across all angles of this industry make drinktuition‘s services far-reaching and unlike anything anyone else an offer.

One of the main premises of drinktuition is to get small-to-medium retailers to lose the insular, proprietary mindset borne of, at best, uncertainty and, at worst, outright fear that is ultimately serving to make them compete against themselves. Many came into their business with no prior knowledge of the industry or insufficient understanding of all the angles. Many of them are so wary of what everyone else is doing that they chose to compete on things—product and mind-share—that they simply don’t need to. There is so much wonderful, viable product available and so many different ways of approaching your business that, for example, everyone can have their own identity without worrying about underselling the next little shop down the street by pennies on national brands while the big players and chains eat them alive on that model. Your business is in your control and the only thing you can control. Don’t just own it—OWN IT!  drinktuition will help you find the best way to reach the customers you want while alleviating the compulsion to care about what your “competitors” are doing. will serve as a community for independent thinkers from all aspects of the industry—retail, restaurant, bar, distributor, supplier, and producer—to share ideas and experiences that will help make your business easier to manage, stronger, more profitable, and(most importantly) fun!

Eventually, this blog will be an integral part of my website which will also serve as a community hub for wine/beer/spirit licensees in Maryland.

But, not to worry—the primary thrust of the blog will be the same, acting as a soap-box for all my quibbles with industry at-large as well as my ongoing drink experiences. Only now, more people will be actively involved in the discussion.

Thanks for sticking with me!

New Job

Beginning January 2, 2014 I will have a new job at Roots Market in Olney, MD. Managing a beer and wine department with a focus on sustainable/organic/biodynamic and local products, while not an absolute necessity to me, is in line with my personal philosophies (as is likely evident to many of you who have read my prior posts). Ideally, this will provide me with more time and material for this blog which has languished badly over the last year.

With that said, I wish you all joy akin to that which I am experiencing so far this holiday season. Merry whatever you’re into and happy next go-’round!

Chained Down


Lots of wine, yes, but this is all organically-produced 2005 Bordeaux from Chateau Grand Francais.

Fine beverage retailers in Maryland are deeply concerned about what appear to be the early stages of their government preparing for legislative approval of grocery and chain wine and beer sales. This action would change the competitive balance of beverage retail in a manner akin to a WalMart or Home Depot popping up on Main Street. I feel that not only is all not lost but that it is a unique time for action and empowerment amongst independent wine retailers. Fighting a predestined victory for such legislation is a waste of energy. Recognizing the situation before it happens provides an opportunity to expend that energy improving your market presence now to establish your brand and the invaluableness of your service.

Here are my comments from a recent LinkedIn discussion about this topic:

The only course of action for independent stores in these situations is to consciously, overtly, and proudly provide products and service unlike what would be available in grocery/chain settings. Most chains operate off of lists of proven market performers and buy mass quantaties of pedestrian product (at steep quantity discounts) off the tops of those lists to provide consumers a perception of value.
The consumers that independent stores wish to attract need to be trained now–before chains enter their market–that the ubiquitous California red blend that can be found “on sale” for $10 at the big stores, more often than not, represents cheapness, not value. The wine does not have to be undistinguished 300K-case-production bulk juice to be affordable–similar prices can be found in every category in the world of wine without compromise of care from vineyard to bottle, production standards, or uniqueness of character.
I do worry that many consumers have come to accept the homogenization of quality and flavor-profile that pervades the bulk production market (which is, admittedly, better than it has ever been even if incredibly boring) as the standard by which value is determined. However, I do not think it is too late to pull back the curtain and educate otherwise. The end goal is creating consumers who don’t simply drink wine; rather, comsumers who “experience” wine.

Much more can—and should—be done to ensure preparedness for a healthy transition into this new market landscape, but this is the core idea. Wine consumption should be an experience, not a task. Now is the time to engender that philosophy in your store and in your customers.

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