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Joel's Blog

Monday, 01 December 2008 20:00

A Michigan journalist with whom I correspond emailed yesterday that she tries "to avoid opinion on subjects I'm covering" -- a reference to my undisguised bias in the state's wrangle over retail wine delivery.

Sorry, but that's a load of malarky. Not to mention self-delusion.

The notion of "objective" journalism got a lot of play during the election, usually in reference to how reporters should handle wildly inaccurate attack ads. The argument frequently went this way: Candidate A says the sky is blue; Candidate B says it's green. Does a responsible journalist need to quote both candidates equally and root around for an opinion from an "independent expert" to contradict Candidate B, or can she simply stick a head out the window and report that Candidate B is making a false claim?

Since I cut my journalistic teeth during the highly-politicized Vietnam / Watergate years, arguments from both camps resurface pretty easily. Traditional journalists claim to strive for "objectivity" -- or at least to constantly monitor and attempt to mask any personal opinions or observations that might influence their writing.

Critics of traditional journalism -- and I'm one -- maintain that's an impossible task, because every element of the journalistic process contributes inherent bias to the finished product, even if the writer is unaware it's happening. So the best course is not to go to pains to mask a point of view, but to put it out there for the intelligent reader to draw her own conclusions. Just don't try to claim it's "fair and balanced".

Let's say you write about wine for a mainstream publication. Your employer likely determines the types of things you write about. A business publication will cover wine business issues, a lifestyle publication the winestyles of the rich and famous. Inherent but unstated in each: What We Cover is Important and Worthwhile. The inevitable result: a pro-business gloss over the former, and a pro-glitzy-consumption bias in the latter.

But that's just the start. Editors assign articles to reporters, while columnists and bloggers pick their own topics. They may call it "news judgment," but it's a major source of bias, reflecting how one person interprets what's important. If a columnist decides to cover a winery's expansion plans instead of its vineyard workers' living conditions, that reflects an opinion, even when masked by words like "newsworthy". Worse still: if the columnist isn't even aware what she excludes every time she selects a topic, because her mindset doesn't cause her to consider "worker living conditions" as a potentially legitimate column topic.

Then there's content bias. Stories -- especially columns and feature articles -- seldom "write themselves". Journalists make judgments at every step, and they're rarely objective. Should an article about banning retail wine delivery focus on the LCC claims about controlling out-of-state shippers, or the small Michigan-based Winebuys.com that would be put out of business by a delivery ban? Do you base this decision on what's most important to understand the controversy, or what makes the best "read" for your audience? What happens to the balance of a piece when an important player doesn't return your phone call, or says, "No Comment."

Journalists make decisions every day based on such real-world situations. Some turn out lots better than others. But let's not pretend that any of us can "avoid opinions" that -- consciously or unconsciously -- end up shaping our journalistic product.

Michigan's battle over retail wine delivery draws pretty clear pro-consumer and anti-consumer lines. Maybe it's unobjective and opinionated, but I'm willing to stick my head out the window to say which is which.

Monday, 24 November 2008 20:00

Gobble GobbleHere's the latest brainstorm to help our state: if each of us switched just $10 of weekly grocery spending to Michigan-grown and Michigan-made products, that would inject $36 million per week into the state's economy.

You can probably see where this is headed.

In my book, wine is Michigan's finest value-added agricultural product. Best of all, I can discharge my entire civic duty with just one easy-to-drink bottle. This time of the year, that means no worrying over how many meals each week we'll need to put butternut squash -- or Little Caesar's -- on the dinner table.

With such patriotic thoughts in mind, I consulted ourThanksgiving hosts and offered to supply the entire wine list for the holiday dinner crowd. After all, what goes better with locally-raised turkey than locally-made Michigan wine? So here's what's on tap for Thursday:


Shady Lane 2000 Blanc de Blanc, Leelanau Peninsula  -- Nothing beats a good bubbly to kick off a festive holiday meal. This is one of Michigan's best -- and a top scorer at last week's Michigan-Ohio Wine Competition.


Domaine Berrien 2007 Marsanne, Lake Michigan Shore -- To this Rhone fan, it strains credulity that we're able to ripen a varietal like Marsanne in Michigan, even in a warm vintage. I've tasted this wine twice previously, and been amazed both times. Time to share it with the Thanksgiving crowd.

Peninsula Cellars 2007 Pinot Gris, Michigan -- Newish Peninsula Cellars Winemaker Chris Guest announced his stylistic preference by changing this wine's name from Pinot Grigio to Pinot Gris -- and it promptly took a Gold Medal at the Michigan Wine Competition.

Chateau Fontaine 2007 Woodland White, Leelanau Peninsula -- Made from another unusual grape, Burgundy's Auxerrois, this one's dripping with medals and offers up a more-than-worthy holiday substitute for the same old Chardonnay.


Brys Estate 2005 Pinot Noir, Old Mission Peninsula -- Michigan's climate doesn't offer many excellent red wine vintages, so we need to enjoy them when we can. One of Michigan's best-ever wines from this grape when it was released a couple of years back -- and Pinot Noir goes wonderfully with turkey.

Hickory Creek 2005 Melange, Lake Michigan Shore -- A not-too-heavy Bordeaux blend from an up-and-coming southwest producer, this should be another turkey-friendly red, designed to accompany my pre-reserved portion of dark meat.


Bel Lago 2006 Late Harvest Pinot Grigio, Leelanau Peninsula -- I'm a serious acid pig when it comes to dessert wines, which can easily descend into grape syrup in ripe years and warmer climates. But this one -- from the higher-acidity 2006 vintage -- grabs and shakes my palate with intense fruit flavors and a backbone to balance its 9% sugar. Pass the pumpkin pie, please.

For another take on the hows, whys and difficulties of pairing (non-Michigan) wines with the riot of Thanksgiving food flavors, you may want to check this NY Times column.


Added: 11/27

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Just ran across an online guide to Michigan-made food and beverage brands you can print out and take to the store. While it's far from complete --  only half of Michigan's wineries make the list -- it's certainly a start in the right direction. Download it here.

Monday, 17 November 2008 20:00

downarrow.pngThat's the term folks involved in the wine shipping wars call what they're trying to do up in Lansing. And it's not a good thing for most Michigan consumers and retailers.

Judges nationwide got the message from the Supreme Court's 2005 Granholm decision: state laws that discriminate against out-of-state wineries or retailers don't pass muster under the Constitution's Commerce Clause.

So politicos in state legislatures had to make a choice. They could "level up" - that is, treat wine like other commodities in the 21st century economy, from autos to gun ammo, and expand their markets with appropriate licenses and regulations, while simultaneously letting Michigan's own businesses effectively expand to serve consumers, both locally and nationwide.

Or they could "level down" - take away the current rights of in-state retailers and consumers in order  to protect the state's powerful wholesaler distributors' cartel.

Given our state's economic track record in recent years, which direction do you guess they're taking up in Lansing? Hint: while Governor Granholm is in on an Israeli road trip, trying to import a few 21st century businesses and jobs to Michigan, her party colleagues back home in the state legislature are busy propping up Prohibition-era beverage laws guaranteed to further damage our precarious economy.

How? The prime example is Winebuys.com, an online seller of wine. It's a high-tech internet startup - something we talk a good game about wanting to promote in Michigan. Started last year by two Detroit-area businessmen who anted up $1 million of their own money, it's one small step along the road that might someday wean Michigan off our auto-dependence. They project $10 million in sales next year, and plan to hire a few more employees soon.

It's a gutsy move to start a new Michigan-based business in this economy. Most of their online competitors are located in places like California, a state that's long encouraged retail wine shipping and, as a result, already houses a profusion of young, growing businesses in the sector.

But if the level-down law before Michigan's state legislature passes, the entire legal basis for their business - selling and shipping wine to retail consumers nationwide - will be banned in Michigan. Like too many other businesses before them, the folks behind Winebuys will have two choices: go out of business or move to another state.

By the way, you may wonder where Winebuys gets all this wine it sells online. You guessed it: from the same Michigan wholesalers whose well-paid lobbyists are diligently working Lansing's backrooms at the moment, to pass the law that will put their customer out of business.

You'd swear these guys have been taking business development lessons from the automakers.

Bob Epstein, one of the lawyers behind the wine shipping court cases, told me he calls the wholesalers' push to level down "vindictive", an act of retribution for their losses in court. The phrase I prefer is "collective punishment".

Either way, leveling down presents a pure "cutting off your nose" scenario. In order to protect their own monopoly status, the wholesaler cartel is willing to damage the retail businesses they supply and their ultimate end-customers, millions of Michigan consumers.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, they've given our state politicos more than 700,000 reasons to see things their way.

And when our legislators get around to thanking the wholesalers for all that campaign cash, I hope they remember that they won't be able to pitch some business to their local Michigan wine store by phoning up and asking it to send over a bottle of Champagne.

You see, that's one of the things they're getting ready to ban if this bill passes.

Monday, 03 November 2008 20:00

Howcum you'll find one small Michgan winery in store after store, while another of similar quality barely registers a blip?

After cruising the Michigan shelves at a half-dozen wine retailers for an Ann Arbor Chronicle column, that question kept nagging at me. Especially since several missing wineries have wholesale representatiion in the area -- in some cases, the same distributors as other wineries that appear repeatedly on local shelves.

So I called Scott Fochtman at Mitten Wine Logistics for some answers. He represents 15 small to medium-sized Michigan wineries, more than any other distributor in the state. Some of his labels appear frequently in local retail stores, while others nearly never show their faces.

Fochtman was ready to explain, in just four words. "It's a pricing issue," he said.

"The problem is a retailer getting $21.99 for a bottle of Michigan wine," he went on. "That's a tough sell. I have those wines in my book. Guys get there and flip right by them. It's too much money."

He mentioned that selling higher-priced Michigan wine was proving especially difficult these days in the Detroit and Ann Arbor markets.

I checked the notes from my Ann Arbor store visits. Sure enough, except for a couple of bubblies, I'd noted just one over-$20 Michigan wine anywhere I stopped.

So what's the best price for Michigan wines in a retail store? 

Fochtman says his sweet spot is $11.99 to $15.99; anything beyond that starts to present problems.

"There is so much good wine at these prices," he said. "For that same price, people will go and buy Australian or Chilean. That's what we're up against. If (a Michigan wine) is $24 at a retailer, you're going to sit on a lot of that wine."

I asked about one high-quality winery whose near-total absence in the local market puzzled me.

"He's a great winemaker," Fochtman agreed. "But his prices aren't competitive in a retail environment."

By way of contast, he mentioned a neighboring winery. "His wines are $5 less a bottle. That makes them much easier to sell."

Of yet another winery, he noted approvingly, "He'll call me and say, 'This wine isn't selling. Let's mark it down and clear it out.'"

Fochtman acknowledged that some smaller wineries are less concerned about retail store volumes because of their strong tasting room business. Wineries make higher margins -- and face less pricing pressure -- when they sell to tasting room visitors, as opposed to retailers.

Because the preferences and loyalties of winery visitors also differ from retail customers, wineries can sell different -- and differently-priced -- wines in their tasting rooms. "I asked (one winemaker) why he makes so many sweeter wines, and he said that he sells them out in his tasting room," Fochtman explained. "We can't sell those same wines at retail."

Next week, I'll speak with a couple of wineries that work with distributors to get their perspective on the same issues.

Monday, 27 October 2008 20:00

For the past few days, I've been doing field work.

Just to be clear, a wine writer's field work doesn't resemble that of an anthropologist. There's no digging up remains of ancient carafes and goblets, or conducting scientifically-valid surveys of wine preferences.

No, this field work consists of visiting wine stores around Ann Arbor to glean information for a monthly wine column that starts on Saturday, November 2, in the newish online paper, the Ann Arbor Chronicle. And the information has to do with the selection of Michigan wine available locally.

What I found was pleasantly surprising, with some caveats. So, in no particular order:

  • For the most part, Michigan wine selections are larger than I expected -- or would have found just a couple of years ago. Six of seven stores presented their Michigan wine in separate sections ranging from adequate to gargantuan. (The lone exception -- Trader Joe's, home of Three Buck Chuck -- uses a business model that isn't a good fit for most Michigan-made wines.)

  • The larger the chain, the larger the wineries.  At Meijer, which hands over the most real estate to Michigan wine, the state's three largest wineries (Chateau Grand Traverse, Leelanau Cellars, and St. Julian) dominate the shelves; I counted ten different flavors of St. Julian Sparkling Spumante, at $3.79 apiece, plus twelve of their other wines.

  • At small stores, the reverse is true. Village Corner, owned by Michigan Wine Competition judge Dick Scheer, offers just four short shelves of Michigan wine. But they're chock-full of gold medal winners and other interesting bottles from smaller wineries, while the "Big Three" barely make an appearance.

  • Several retailers volunteered that they've noticed increased numbers of customers buying Michigan wines. "We have a fair number of folks coming in and asking for them," said Whole Foods Market wine manager Audree Riesterer.

  • Small wineries from Leelanau and Old Mission have exploded onto southern Michigan shelves. I expected to find -- and did -- such strong marketers as Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal and L. Mawby. But multiple stores also offered bottles from Bowers Harbor, Brys, Peninsula Cellars, Left Foot Charley, Bel Lago, Chateau Fontaine and Shady Lane. A couple of savvy retailers specifically credited Mitten Distributors with sparking the move to launch smaller up-north wineries in the Ann Arbor market.

  • Just the opposite seems true for the smaller wineries from Lake Michigan Shore. Except for the moderately-represented Fenn Valley and Tabor Hill, there's a real marketplace gap here. But nearby wineries Lone Oak and Sandhill Crane -- both of which self-distribute to Ann Arbor -- make a good showing, along with the odd bottle from Cherry Creek.

  • A surprising number of older vintages, particularly among dry whites, remain on the shelves. With most wineries now into their 2007 release cycle, or at least finishing up 2006, it was odd to find so many 2005 whites for sale in multiple stores. I didn't take the time to inquire if these have been sitting (upright) on the shelves for the past year or two, or if they're recently-arrived distributor stock. But it's difficult to recommend that consumers purchase three year old whites of unknown provenance, even from an excellent vintage.

  • Despite the recent announcement of its availability to retailers, no store yet stocks any of St. Julian's Braganini Reserve line. A couple are stocking Chateau Grand Traverse specialty wines.

  • The new Whole Foods Market offers an in-store tasting bar -- a first in the area -- along with a pledge to keep several Michigan wines on the list. When I stopped by, their four Michigan offerings came from Lone Oak and Leelanau Cellars. I noted that the latter don't actually carry a Michigan appellation, despite the "Taste of Northern Michigan" on the label.

  • Most ubiquitous wines: L. Mawby Cremant and M. Lawrence Sex. Larry is everywhere.
    Saturday, 18 October 2008 20:00

    Arrogance. It's hard to come up with a better word to describe the behavior of Wine.com.Wine.com logo

    If you saw MichWine's top story, you know they've unilaterally and publicly decided to stick their thumb in the eye of Federal Judge Denise Page Hood and start shipping wine into Michigan.

    The Wine.com folks aren't naive on the subject of shipping. Last holiday season, they ran a private "sting" operation against 29 online competitors they accused of breaking shipping laws -- and turned them in to state authorities. This vigilante behavior earned condemnation by both consumer wine writers and those in the industry. A number of people even called for a customer boycott against Wine.com.

    Now they seem to have flipped 180 degrees, and decided their interests lie in becoming scofflaws themselves.

    But their current approach -- much as I disagree with it -- stems from a legitimate frustration they share with Michigan consumers over the antiquated, protectionist laws that govern wine sales. Far more than Wine.com, those laws deserve our antipathy -- and efforts for change.

    Why? Thanks to a Prohibition-era legal anachronism, in the year 2008 I can go online and legally purchase anything from a new car to bullets for a .357 Magnum --  but not a bottle of wine from a store in Illinois.

    That's because Michigan's wine laws protect and enrich a single powerful group: the distribution monopoly known as the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (MBWWA). This would be the same MBWWA whose members -- surprise! -- donate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the campaign chests and private PAC's of our state's politicians.

    As MBWWA Executive Director Mike Lashbrook recently told the Wine Spectator, their attitude toward Michigan consumers boils down to this: We think our wine selection is pretty good. If we don't sell something, you don't need it -- and you shouldn't have a legal way to get it.

    Yet Lashbrook whines in the same article that countless Michigan wine consumers simply ignore the law to order wines they can't find locally from out-of-state retailers. Retailers like Wine.com.

    You gotta wonder if this poor guy feels any irony (or pain) straddling both sides of the fence simultaneously: We bring in all the wines that Michigan needs. And what about all those people whose actions prove otherwise? They're just a bunch of lawbreakers.

    That rises to a level of arrogance -- no, let's call it hubris -- in a totally different league from the folks at Wine.com.

    And it hurts our state. As during Prohibition, our failure to appropriately regulate and tax interstate wine shipment costs Michigan untold dollars in licensing fees and tax revenues that our state can't afford to lose. Not to mention the lost respect for a "public be damned" lawmaking process that created the current situation and leaves it in place.

    Or, as the Grand Rapids Press editorialized last week:

    What public purpose is being served by preventing adults from buying wine from their favorite wine retailer outside Michigan, provided they pay any required sales tax? The Internet, in particular, has made shopping across state and even national borders for all sorts of goods easier and more efficient. There is no reason to exclude wine from out-of-state retailers from the list of goods available to Michigan consumers.


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    Need to Know


    Early results from an experiment by Chateau Margaux's Paul Pontallier indicate that screwcaps may age red wine better than natural cork -- plus eliminate any risk of corked bottles, as reported in The Drinks Business. 


    The 2011-2 mild weather was healthy for Michigan's vineyards, but it's played havoc with state winemakers who leave grapes on the vine in hopes that they'll freeze for the production of icewine, reports AP writer John Flesher.


    Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.


    Warming climate may help cooler grape-growing regions -- like England -- but could damage places like Napa, writes jounalist John McQuaid in Yale's environmental magazine.


    Western Farm Press reports that Cornell Prof Miguel Gomez is studying how smaller wineries can jointly create a successful cool-climate wine region. He'll look at emerging areas in Michigan, New York and Missouri.


    Here's one for some Michigan entrepreneur to try! A just-opened Long Island outlet mall store will sell nothing but New York State wines. Starting inventory at Empire State Cellars: 400 labels from 150 wineries.


    Want a refresher about Michigan wine history and potential? Get a quick two page cheat-sheet by Layne Cameron in Western Farm Press, and make some allowances for the MSU-centricity (the author's employer).

    Links to wine news from Michigan and elsewhere. Use the Contact Form to let us know what should be here.


    Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.