Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Lotos Eaters

I once thought I was fairly unique in this industry in New York as a writer/artistic types-turned-winemaker however I have long since been disabused of that notion. The late Mark Miller of Benmarl was a noted artist, Bill Wetmore of Cascade Mountain winery is a novelist and Carlo DeVito is a wine writer with a book on East Coast Wineries, (Rutgers University Press). Since Mark Miller is deceased and Bell Wetmore has more or less semi-retired from the active running of the winery, most of my recent contact with this rather small community has therefore been with Carlo. I have mentioned Carlo and his wine in previous blogs ('Simple Gifts'), and not only is he a fellow writer (and competitor for the affections of the Watkins Glen ASPCA) but like me, his anger management protocol involves the application of what is called (in psychological circles) the Big Mac. One other thing I have noticed about him is that he has in general an impeccable sense of timing, therefore, when he chose this week to address in his blog the issue of wine in grocery stores and the state of the New York wine industry in general I found the timing most interesting. A bill to allow wine in grocery stores, pushed mostly by the upscale grocery chains like Wegman's and Whole Foods was put before the New York legislature this past spring, by summer it was excised from the state budget. Some of its more vocal proponents, like Scott Osborn of Fox Run vineyards have banded together to revive this effort. We'll see how that goes. For now the issue seems essentially dead. So why is Carlo addressing this issue now?

The rest of Carlo's blog (which you can read at went on to bemoan the fact that New York State wineries have had a dismal history when it comes to penetrating the all important NYC market. At first I didn't see the connection between these two issues,--now I do. Rather than explain I will illustrate it with a series of vignettes.

This past June I happened to do the Union Square Greenmarket and I had the following conversation with Rory Callahan, one of the organizers of the NY Winestand. (I paraphrase)
Rory: 'Too bad about Rivendell.'
Me: 'Yeah well, the winery is closed but at least Susan
(Wine) still has the Vintage New York store'
(a wine store in Manhattan specializing in NYS Wines)
Rory: 'They closed too.'
Me: 'Really!'
Rory: 'Yeah they never made a profit since they were open.'
Me: 'Really?'

This past week, noticing my October calendar was sparse I went looking for events to
participate in. I notice the NY Wine and Food Show. On closer inspection, the website noted that only wineries handled by Southern distributors were being allowed to participate. I sent the following email to Jim Trezise of the NYWGF.


It seems to me that the NYC Wine and Food Festival on Oct 8-11 would be a great venue for NY State wines however, it seems none are participating as winery participation is limited to clients of Southern Wine & Spirits which I guess means Constellation. Is there any way to get a new york booth in there? Maybe through
Rory C?


his reply follows:

'Hi Ken – No, unfortunately, it is a Southern event, so only their wineries (like Heron Hill and Bedell in NY) may participate. They do a similar thing at South Beach each year. Sorry -- Jim'

OK, so now, a few days later, we come to Carlo's blog about the inability of NY Wineries to penetrate the NYC market.

I read the blog and send the following to Mike Colameco who is an influential food commentator with a program on PBS.

'Hi Mike
I am a big fan of the show.
(I have learned it is good practice to butter up people you don't know and are emailing out of the blue)
I wanted to direct your (sic) attention to a blog
called 'The Problem with New York STate Wine.


Within minutes I had the following response.

'great article and basically all correct as well
though I'd have to add that some of the LI wineries price their products too high to mind as do many producers from the west coast Cali, Wash Oregon, and as a result
consumers who are always squeezed for dollars often find better value in imported wines from smaller old world producers
esp the Rhone, Beaujloais (sic) Cru's, the Loire, the vast LR regions as well as parts of Spain Italy , Austria and Germany where in the
$10 - 25 range there is a lot of great juice, and we didn't start talking Argentina, Chile Australia S Africa or New Zealand.

But I'd love to see NY get it's act together


Now Mike is the quintessential New Yorker, and since I grew up in New York too I understand his position. It is true, that New Yorkers routinely expect the best of the entire world to be brought neatly to their doorstep, and at a competitive price. No muss, no fuss. Scott Osborn and others like him who believe (like me) that NY is producing world class wines, and that the marketplace is essentially fair (which I don't) are pushing hard to bring NY Wines to a grocery store near you so we can compete with the flood of wine from Europe, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on an equal footing. (To Scott I say, this is not about to stem the tide and); the effort of course is also partly a Trojan Horse to gain access to the all important NYC market.

All of which brings me to the Buffalo lady I described in my blog last week who suggested that we cut off NYC entirely and let it float away to sea. While this would evidently solve the above problem, in the end it may not be the best solution.

The problem as I see it is that this is not just a NY problem. The problem is that we have become a nation of Lotos Eaters. We produce nothing and expect the best of everything. The most smug, self-satisfied upstater is no less guilty of this than the most urbane, world-weary Manhattanite, they only have different priorities. What distinguishes the Lotos is that it grow directly in water and has no connection to the land. The soil beneath the feet of New Yorkers is what connects them. It is what connects us. When you buy a New York State wine you are touching that which connects us, --as I see it the choice is pretty clear, continue down the path of disconnection or find ways to connect with our own soil, the efforts of our neighbors, the fabric of our lives. To Mike Colameco I say sure maybe a bottle of NY Wine costs a few dollars more but maybe something more interesting will come out of it in the end. Maybe the time is right to look around seek out what it is that binds us together rather than what is tearing us apart. As they say, timing is everything and as the song goes sometimes one finds 'time in a bottle'.

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