The Invisible Middle

This story was originally published on renowned wine author Jancis Robinson’s website as part of a call for submissions from Indie Wine Bloggers. We’ve never posted it here to The Thirsty Kitten, but felt moved to do so now because “the invisible middle” can use a little love, we think.

While this story is specifically a wine story, there are “invisible middles” in so many parts of our lives that it’s worth taking a moment to think about. From people who impact others on a one-on-one basis to those who affect large groups of people at once, there are many unsung, unrecognized folks who make a positive difference in our lives, yet who often do not get the kudos they deserve.

In the two years since this story was written, the small wine distributor profiled here is, sadly, no longer in business, testament to the fact, perhaps, that it’s not easy being a little guy sometimes. But this in no way diminishes the truth of the passion that is profiled here and the value of the spirit that is illustrated.

So here’s to the Invisible Middle! May we keep our eyes open for those who are helping us in ways we may have overlooked, and may we all seek to do some good in the world in whatever corner of it we happen to occupy.

THE INVISIBLE MIDDLE OF THE US WINE WORLD

A love note to the small distributors of America

I have a wine story to tell, and I’d like to start in the middle. That’s right, the middle. The invisible middle, in fact. Most of us think a lot about the glorious beginnings of wine – vineyards, grapes, golden sunshine on leafy vines – or the delicious end which is, of course, when the first sip hits your palate.

But on the path from vineyard to glass, a lot has to happen. And there is one figure in the process that I would like to give a special nod to, a player who is the smallest of fish in the biggest of seas, someone I would guess most people have never given a single thought: your friendly, local, small wine distributor.

If you are a wine drinker in the United States, you are impacted by a system for selling alcohol that was created when Prohibition ended in 1933. Complex and highly regulated, the ‘Three Tier System’ dictates that producers of alcohol (Tier I) are not allowed to sell their product directly to consumers. Instead they are required by law to sell it to a licensed distributor (Tier II), who then is allowed to sell it to a licensed retailer (Tier III). That retailer can then sell it to you, the consumer.

Though there have been changes over the years to soften the lines of separation – for instance, rules that allow wineries to sell directly to their customers now – this system largely determines what wines end up on the shelves where you shop. My point is not to argue the system’s merits (or lack thereof) but rather to shine a light on the industrious people who have started small companies in the middle tier. While they are a microscopic part of the big business of wine distribution, they have found fruitful niches specializing in small, often family-owned, wineries whose hands-on labors of love produce gems we might never discover without their help.

These ‘little guys’ of the distribution world go unnoticed. They do not appear in the news like their mega counterparts, such as Southern Wine and Spirits and Glazer’s Inc who made headlines earlier this year with their merger. Now known as Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the company is the largest distributor in the US with 20,000 employees.

Contrasting delightfully, Oeno Distribution in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has two co-owners and three sales representatives. Visiting their warehouse recently, I felt I had gained admittance to an inner sanctum. Cases and cases of wines from small wineries in Washington, Oregon, New York and Michigan (yes, Michigan!) are stacked high in the cavernous room that doubles as their office.

Anthony Abdallah, who owns the business with his sister Amy Mason, talks about how he became acquainted with wine. Working as a server at Blue Water Grill in Manhattan’s Union Square to supplement his income as an actor, he was overwhelmed by the enormous, book-sized wine list. As he tells it, the sommelier said to him, ‘Pick one red and one white every night. Come to me and I’ll talk to you about them. Then, talk to your customers about only those two wines all night long.’ Anthony continues, ‘I started doing as she suggested and realised, Holy cow! I love this.’ He went on to get his sommelier certification through the Sommelier Society of America.

Though he left New York for a job with the Omaha Theater Company as lead actor and teaching artist, he continued to study wine. When his sister, also a wine fan, wanted a change from practicing law, she suggested to Anthony they go into the wine business together.

‘It’s important for me to feel like what I’m doing has purpose and value to not just me and my bank account but to the world around me’, Anthony shares. ‘So Amy and I talked a long time about what were going to say about why we’re doing this. Otherwise, we’re just selling alcohol. We wanted to do something to promote small, family-owned business, to promote real agriculture, and to remind people that wine is agriculture.’

They sought out wineries that were family-owned or owned by friends, that had estate-grown fruit, and that were farmed sustainably. ‘We’ve done a great job’, Anthony noted, ‘curating wines that meet all these requirements but also are a value for what they are.’ Having sampled some of the wines Oeno represents, like the Riesling from upstate New York by Ravines Cellars, I can attest that ‘delicious’ must have been a requirement, too.

Page Knudsen Cowles of Knudsen Vineyards in Oregon, works with another of Minnesota’s small distributors, Libation Project. Producing only 1,000 cases a year, Page was glad that Libation was willing to take their account. She likens small wine distributors to independent booksellers who are able to focus on limited production runs and more unique offerings than bigger companies usually can do.

Tyler Melton is among five sales representatives at Libation and works with Page’s family vineyard. He says, ‘Bigger companies typically have to worry about continuity, about being able to provide the same wines any time of year and have them available year after year’ because the large retailers they supply want to satisfy mass-market tastes.

‘We believe’, he continues, ‘that good wine runs out. And when good wine runs out, it just creates more buzz for when the wine gets released the next year.’

Moving from working at an independent retailer to the distribution side, Tyler shares what he said when he interviewed at Libation: ‘I’m never going to sell what you guys tell me to sell. I’m going to only sell stuff that I’m passionate about, and that I think is important for people to have in their stores or on their wine lists.’ While a speech like that would not get you hired in a lot of places, it was music to the ears of Libation’s owners.

Jessica de Kozlowski, who is a wine buyer for a Minneapolis area retailer, formerly worked for a small distributor. She says, ‘The small distributors do a great job of finding diamonds in the rough… We end up getting really beautiful art in a bottle through what they bring to us.’

Further, she notes, ‘When you get into sub-AVAs and microclimates, you find incredible wines that stand out from the more typical fare on the shelves. But in those small niches, the production is not nearly big enough to interest the big distributors, for the most part.’

‘With small distributors, it’s more about building relationships with people’, Jessica emphasises, ‘passing on their stories, and educating buyers on the vineyards and regions. The small distributors do that for us as a retailer and we, in turn, provide that for our customers.’

As Anthony explains, ‘We have close relationships with our wineries. The buyers we bring our wines to get to meet the owners, they get to meet the winemakers. It’s very personal with us.’ And it’s personal for the wineries, too, Jessica points out, ‘Their product is literally their blood, sweat and tears. It’s not just a job for them, it’s often their family tradition.’

We are fortunate in Minnesota to have many small distributors, but there are at least a few in every state in the US. And I am certain that no matter where you are, you will find these traits amongst the small distributors in your area: a passion for wine, a commitment to sharing the stories of the wineries, a focus on long-term relationships, and a quest to find undiscovered treasures.

In honor of these unsung heroes, I propose an experiment: Go to your neighborhood retailer, ask who their favorite local distributors are and what wines they carry from these companies. It is very likely that you will promptly be on the receiving end of some entertaining stories both about the wines and wineries and probably about the distributors who brought them in their door, as well. Best yet, you will leave with some delicious things to sip.

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