I am seriously concerned about wine. Specifically about the disappearance of great wine. I am fearful of losing access to fabulous discoveries from far-away places due to the American sport of saving a buck. This year my area has lost two independent wine retailers known for hand-selecting wines. Austin’s in Fort Myers closed at the beginning of the year, and now Haskell’s in Naples has closed. Both stores were run by thoughtful wine lovers who tasted every wine before putting it on the shelf. There were not mountains of wine stacked to the ceiling because most of the producers whose wines made the cut were too small to sell a stack of wine to anyone. The prices in these two stores were varied and great care was taken to keep things affordable- especially during this recession. Customers were more like friends and everyone who entered was treated like a kindred spirit. Even if someone came in asking for Barefoot or Yellow Tail, they were treated with respect and offered an alternative, or offered a special order to be delivered later in the week. It is sad for any business to close but the disappearance of small wine retailers portends a greater loss in the world of wine: the possible extinction of artisinal wine.
Last week I was in one of the few remaining local wine retailers in the area called the Wine Merchant. I tried one of the most unique and delicious wines I’ve had in quite a long time called Rossese Riviera Ligure di Ponente from a producer named Punta Crena. I would never pick this wine up on my own because I know nothing about it, but the store owner Charlene knows me and knows what I like and thought I’d enjoy it. She could not have been more right. Never before have I had a red wine (granted this one was pretty light) and thought, “this would be perfect with a bisque.” It’s acidity and lightness was perfect for a heavy fat seafood situation. A look at the importer’s website describing the winery’s product reinforced that thought and made me feel like I sorta know what I’m talking about- great for any insecure wine fan. Turns out it’s 100% Rossese which is a local grape from Liguria in Italy and it is barely planted any more because it’s difficult to work with. There is not a lot of this wine in general, and even less from this particular producer whose family has been making it true to tradition and local taste for 500 years.
So here is the issue: If the Wine Merchant didn’t exist, where would I find this wine? And how would I ever know to try it? Supermarkets (ABC liquors, Total, Costco) would never carry it because 1. there isn’t enough of it to fill an order for even one case per store, 2. very few people would know what it is and therefore few would buy it, and 3. there isn’t the manpower or wine enthusiasm to actually hand-sell a product like this. So it would get lost. A distributor wouldn’t order much (if any) because they wouldn’t have anywhere to sell it. So the importer would scale back his order since distributors weren’t buying. And eventually the winemaker would produce even less or eventually go out of business because a vineyard, no matter how rustic, cannot run on just centesimi.
I feel like the wine industry is careening towards a big vat of homogenized sameness as these small retailers are shuttered by giganti-corps with the buying power of bulk. I am in an area where people profess a great love of wine and I overhear them display their wine knowledge like peacocks at wine tastings constantly, yet when it comes time to buy they don’t put their money where their palate is. Instead, they scamper off to the nearest mountainous display of boring mass-produced wine and support “the man” and put us one step closer to having no options other than $9.99 crap from producers whose only concern is making barely passable wine with maximum margin. It is this customer- the one saving a buck or two on sub-standard wine- that is putting small retailers and quite possibly small producers out of business. And this will be a shame.