Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is Anyone Listening?

Once again I find wine writer Eric Asimov as my muse. A recent article in the New York Times written by Mr. Asimov highlights the wine list of Nice Matin, a Proven├žal restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (article here). Mr. Asimov writes of the surprising depth and diversity of the list built by beverage director Aviram Turgeman. With access to the old cellar collection of the now closed Chanterelle and the ability to purchase the cellars of private collectors, Mr. Turgeman has built a list that rivals many of the top wine lists in NYC. He estimates that he can keep the list’s depth on going for the next 5 years. If Mr. Turgerman’s networking skills are solid, which I suspect they are, the list should continue to provide great wine geek pleasure for many more than 5 years. Nonetheless, I’d be astonished to find any wine list in my home state of Connecticut to be half as deep as the first three pages of Turgerman’s masterpiece. There’s a reason for that.

The State of Connecticut Liquor Laws prohibits retailers and restaurateurs alike from procuring the cellars of private collectors for resale. Under the ruse of protecting the consumer, wine enthusiasts, diners, foodies and the general consumer are forced to choose wines that are generally too youthful to enjoy while dining at a restaurant or celebrating a special occasion at home. Retailers and restaurateurs are bound by state law to purchase only those wines currently offered by a state registered wholesaler. These wholesalers are not in the business of collecting wine, they are in the business of selling wine. Their inventories are rife with the newest vintages and very rarely have any selections that offer maturity or bottle age. Therefore, consumers are limited by the selections that are chosen mostly by big box distributors whose interests lie mainly in depletions and placements, not quality, choice and depth. It’s easy for most to procure a package store permit, open your door, and choose from the Beverage Media a host of recognizable brands to stock the shelves. Of course, that’s a generalization. And yes, there are smaller distributors focused on artisan, handcrafted wines that a solid retailer or restaurateur will seek out and support. Most just don’t have the drive or passion to do so, a subject for another day. I digress. Conversely, a consumer or diner can simply shop and dine out of state to find a wine list that is as deep as Mr. Turgerman’s. I often find myself preferring to take a 45 minute drive to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I have a cacophony of restaurant choices whose food and wine list will be miles apart than anything I can find in Connecticut. I’m not bashing Connecticut food. There are good places to eat and some have adequate wine lists. But the buzz of Manhattan and the choice are simply unmatched in a sleepy bedroom community.

I suspect this lack of consumer choice is because the State legislators fear it would lose much needed tax revenue by the reduction of sales from big box distributors. I also suspect that allowing retailers to purchase from private collections goes against the special interest of big box distributors that strongly lobby for any change in law that benefits the consumer or retailer. I’ll admit that is being slightly sensationalist, and perhaps meant to bash and provoke. But perhaps the Governor can consider the increased sales tax revenue this State would be rewarded if small, medium and large size wine retailers in CT were able to sell older vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy and cult California Cabernets. Imagine the possibilities of a retailer selling a private collector’s $60,000 cellar to another collector for $72,000 reaping $4,320 in sales tax? Those numbers are small on purpose. That’s what one singular 800 square foot store would be able to achieve quickly, at least those that are aggressive and proactive. Now imagine those numbers on a larger scale. Repealing or rewriting the statute would pump countless dollars into a suffering industry and keep business in the State of Connecticut. The purchase would, of course, have to be approved by the State, detailing the transaction and the amount of juice to be procured. Furthermore, the State could gain additional tax revenue by subjecting the retailer’s (or restaurateur’s) purchase to the same liquor taxation the wholesalers face. The onus would be placed on the retailer (restaurateur) to pay that tax. The retailer simply builds that cost into the shelf price of the wine.  More importantly, it allows Connecticut retailers and restaurateurs to be more competitive in a market place that is increasingly more difficult as consumers move their purchases on-line and out of state. Those seeking older vintages of wines are forced to shop on the internet, spending their dollars outside of Connecticut and taking their special occasion dining out of state as well. I was under the impression that the current legislators were focused on keeping business in CT. Changing this legislation can do that. But is anyone listening?    

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