Proposed Legislation Offers a Glimmer of Hope for Massachusetts Wine Shipment

Monday, August 31, 2009

Boston State House
Photo by James Trosh

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor shared a bottle of hard-to-find-in-Massachusetts Petite Sirah that he received via their mailing list. I had a look at their website and submitted a request to join their wine club. A few days later, they contacted me to let me know that it would be difficult to ship to MA. One shipper they work with was very expensive- $60 for 2 bottles (the wine only costs about $40 per bottle!). The other shipper said they could only ship if it went through a distributor. Both of these options sounded unattractive, especially for a wine club scenario where I'd repeatedly receive shipments from the winery throughout the year.

Everyone always says that I should just receive shipments like these via friends and relatives in a neighboring state. I guess I could, but what a pain in the neck that would be for everyone involved. At minimum I'd be burdening someone to accept deliveries for me. What if they weren't home for a few days when the deliveries came? What if it was too hot or too cold and the wine sat outside for a few days? And then we have to arrange pick-up somehow. That could be a nuisance as well.

What bothers me most about this situation is that this winery should be able to legally ship wine to MA already. Since they produce less than 30,000 gallons a year, they could acquire a permit to ship to MA by submitting an application to the Massachusetts ABCC. Here is the form they'd need to fill out. The fee is $100. The winery would need to file quarterly reports on how much wine they ship to the state and collect MA state taxes for the shipments. Although this may seem like a pain in the neck and expensive for small wineries to navigate (and it is), Massachusetts isn't the only state in the country with permit requirements like this. It's actually the model legislation that Free The Grapes.org endorses as equitable for the interests of the winery, the consumer and the states.

Let's say this winery decided to go through the effort of applying for one of these permits and they were granted a license to ship to Massachusetts. Where would this get them? Well, they'd find out quickly that they weren't able to ship to Massachusetts because, strangely, UPS and FedEx don't ship wine here!

Have a look at the first page you see on UPS.com when you search for "wine shipment":

"UPS does not accept shipments containing wine to or from Massachusetts."

Um, OK. Strange that they'd put that front and center on their site. And strange that Massachusetts would be selling permits to small wineries to ship wine to the state when UPS doesn't actually ship here. How about FedEx? Can they ship to Massachusetts? If we consult FedEx's from-to wine shipping tables we see they cannot ship wine from CA (nor other states) to MA. What's the deal?

Well, there's this wacky law which requires every one of a shipper's trucks need to be licensed in order to transport wine around the state. My understanding is that FedEx *has* gone through the hassle, and paid $150 for each truck they use to deliver wine. So I'm at a loss as to why they don't ship wine into Massachusetts. It could very well be related to this outstanding litigation regarding whether *large* wineries should also be able to ship to the state. This legislation is a farce, it would seem, since small wineries should already be able to ship and in practice they cannot. A colossal waste of time if you ask me. There's got to be a better way.

And there is. There are actually two pieces of proposed legislation authorizing the direct shipment of wine in accordance with the model endorsed by Free The Grapes and would therefore enable wine to be shipped directly to us. The legislation would address the remaining items limiting our ability to Have a Boston Wine Party. They are:

MA House No. 317. Check progress here.
MA Senate No. 176. Check progress here.

In doing research for this piece, I contacted the offices of the legislators who are sponsoring these bills. They provided me some clarification related to the intent of the bills, but overall I was left with little confidence these bills are being moved through the system with any urgency. That's where we each come in as citizens of this state.

The best way I'm aware of to move these issues along is to contact our respective representatives and let them know that this is important to us. Don't know who your representative is? I didn't. A list can be found here. Give them a call. Tell them you support direct wine shipment and ask them what they're doing to help move this along. If they don't support the proposed legislation, maybe we shouldn't support their re-election.

Keep in mind this legislation only applies to *wineries* shipping to Massachusetts. Out of state retailers (like Wine Library for example) would still not be able to ship to the state.

Consider signing up for E-mail updates from The Wellesley Wine Press for updates on these and other Massachusetts wine shipping laws. There are some nuances associated with the proposed legislation I'll be discussing in upcoming weeks.

Question of the Day: What do you think of this situation?

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Sunday, August 30th: Bin Ends Wine Flea Market

Saturday, August 29, 2009

On Sunday August 30th, 2009 from 1-5PM Bin Ends Wine in Braintree, MA is having an end of summer blowout Wine Flea Market. Stop by and sample more than 60 wines on sale at 25-50% off retail and then place your order for later pick-up. The event is free.

Click here to RSVP

Check 'em out:
Bin Ends Wine
236 Wood Road, Braintree, MA
(781)817-1212
Follow @binendswine on Twitter

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4th Annual Newport Mansions Food & Wine Festival: September 25-27, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Here's a nice event for your consideration. The Preservation Society of Newport County presents the 4th Annual Newport Mansions Food & Wine Festival the weekend of September 25th-27th, 2009. There are a number of options available for attending the event, but I think the most popular will be attending the Grand Tastings that occur both Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Tickets are a little bit more affordable for the Sunday tasting ($75), and if you purchase tickets by September 14th.

To attend the Grand Tastings, free parking is available at nearby Easton Beach on Memorial Boulevard. Free shuttles will transport you to Marble House where you'll enter through the mansion and then enjoy the tasting in a large tented area overlooking the Ocean. Attendance is limited to about 1,500 people for each of the Grand Tastings so expect this to be quite a bit more intimate than an event like the Boston Wine Expo.

The list of exhibitors looks impressive. These in particular caught my eye:

I'm planning on attending the event, so I hope to see you there! Click here for tickets and more information.

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Tasting Report: Torrent Bay Wines

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's 5:30 PM on a Sunday. There's a knock at the door. It's Wayne Bayliss and Jill Cleaver from 28 Below Wine Imports from Australia. They've come bearing samples of Torrent Bay Wines from New Zealand- a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay. Hand delivery: That's one way to get around the restrictive shipping laws in Massachusetts.

Torrent Bay Wines is named after a body of water in Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand. They haven't been around too incredibly long- their first grapes were planted in the Moutere Hills of Nelson, New Zealand in the year 2000. Stylistically, the winery positions itself in contrast to many of the mass produced, mass marketed wines that we see on shelves in the U.S.

I had a chance to crack open each of the wines this past week. Here are my impressions:

2008 Torrent Bay Chardonnay
Nelson, New Zealand
10,000 cases produced
13.5% alcohol
$12.95
My Notes:
Pretty full bodied for a Chardonnay. If this were milk, it would be about 2% in terms of weight. It seemed fairly heavily oaked. A little quirky on the palate- can't quite put my finger on it. It's not a straightforward wine. Not my favorite, but hey I don't like many Chardonnays and the ones I do like aren't that critically acclaimed.
83 Points/WWP: Good


2008 Torrent Bay Sauvignon Blanc
Nelson, New Zealand
15,000 cases produced
12% alcohol
$12.95
My Notes:
In my experience, Sauvignon Blanc is what New Zealand does best. I thought this was a classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, if little bit less robust than my benchmark Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. A clean and lively citrus/grass nose. Nice minerality on the finish. Smooth. Delicious.
88 Points/WWP: Very Good

Check here for a list of their distributors in the United States.

Further Reading:

I'd like to thank Wayne and Jill for giving me the chance to taste these wines.

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Wine Spectator: 2007 California Pinot Noir Best Vintage Ever

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wine Spectator is cranking up the hype machine for the 2007 vintage of California Pinot Noir, calling it the "best ever". I've had a chance to look through the magazine and sift through the ratings listed in their online database. To date, they've rated 384 California Pinot Noirs and there are some choice values to be had.

My impression of the vintage, based almost entirely on their ratings at this point, is that it presents an opportunity to purchase some really highly rated wines in a popular category without breaking the bank. This isn't necessarily a vintage that's produced a long list of 90 points wines for $20. Don't we wish! Rather, it's a vintage that rewards value hunters for their research and those willing to spend just a little more than the median per-bottle price of $45.

Taking a look at the graph above showing rating vs. price, I've highlighted in red the value circle of the chart. These are the highly rated wines that cost the least. I put all of these wines through the wwpQPR (what's that?) to see where the values were. I used a wwpQPR baseline price for this vintage of $30. This is the price at which is it relatively easy to find an outstanding bottle. Although there are only 8 wines for $30 or less that received 90 points or more in this study, if you include Oregon Pinot Noirs (which many people consider superior if stylistically different than California) and look across other still-available vintages I think it wouldn't be too hard to find an outstanding bottle for $30.

What I see in the value circle are two types of wines:

Top rated wines that can be had for just a little more than median

Of these, the three best values according to the wwpQPR Caluclator are:

  • 2007 Red Car Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Heaven & Earth La Boheme Vineyard (97WS/$60)
  • 2007 Kanzler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (96WS/$48)
  • 2007 Chasseur Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Rayhill (96WS/$50)
Unfortunately, availability of these wines is quite poor. I tracked down a couple of bottles of the Red Car but it required a fair amount of research and persistence.

Here's an interview I did with Paul Sequeira from Red Car after they heard about this big rating from Spectator.

Outstanding wines that can be had for under $30

There were only 8 90+ rated wines available for $30 or less. Of these, the best values according to the wwpQPR Calculator are:
  • 2007 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Cuvee de Trois (93WS/$28)
  • 2007 Paraiso Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands (92WS/$28)
  • 2007 Roessler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Red Label (92WS/$28)
Availability is quite a bit better on these wines. I have not seen the Joseph Swan yet, but both the Paraiso -and- the Roessler are available as of this writing at VinoDivino in Newton, MA.

Don't get too excited about a 90 point rating from this vintage unless it's accompanied by a low price. More than 42% of the wines rated received 90 points:

There are plenty of QPR disasters in the report, and that's one of the reasons I respect Spectator. They publish low ratings while other publications choose not to. When a winery submits a wine, there's no telling what might happen in a blind tasting when the person tasting the wine doesn't know the price. The worst values in the vintage so far:
  • 2007 Harrington Pinot Noir Chalone Brosseau Vineyard (72WS/$45)
  • 2007 Ellman Family Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Alexis Skye (79WS/$49)
  • 2007 De Loach Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley (79WS/$45)
  • 2007 Chalone Pinot Noir Chalone Heritage (79WS/$45)
Overall, if we compare this vintage to another popular category like 2005 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, what we see is that neither are particularly affordable. However, Pinot Noir doesn't get as expensive at the high end as Cabernet does. There was only 1 bottle of Pinot Noir rated that cost more than $100. Of the 2005 Napa Cabs rated by Spectator 25% of the wines cost more than $100. My point? If you like Napa Cab and California Pinot Noir, and want to splurge on a really highly rated bottle, you'd probably find better options in 2007 Pinot Noir.

Further Reading:
  • This 2008 California Pinot Noir is ahead of the curve. It's already been released, rated 88 points and is only $8.
  • There's some great recommendations in the comments section of last year's piece on $20 Pinot Noirs
  • A tasting of the 2007 Paraiso Pinot Noir reveals mixed results.
If you're a retailer and carry any of these wines, please contact me- I'd be happy to add your availability to this piece.

Question of the Day: Which 2007 California Pinot Noirs are you buying?

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Massachusetts ABCC to Retailers: No Shipping Wine Out of State

Monday, August 17, 2009

Map of Massachusetts

It's been a rough year for Massachusetts wine retailers. Besides the down economy that's cast a shadow upon businesses of all kinds, and the tax hike that went into effect on August 1st, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has issued warnings to retailers advising that they stop shipping wine to customers out of state. According to several wine retailers I spoke with, they are no longer shipping wine out of state as a result of this guidance.

Chapter 138 of the General Laws of Massachusetts lays out in not-so-clear terms how alcohol is to be sold in the state. The nuance in the way this works that I find most bothersome is that the law defines what you *can* do, not what you're can't do when it comes to selling alcohol. For example, out of state retailers are not allowed to sell wine and ship it to residents within MA. But you won't find anywhere in the chapter that says this directly- you'll only find that the only people who can sell wine to people in MA are retailers who have a license to do so, and the commission only issues licenses to retailers in the state. This is a different situation than most laws we are limited by as citizens where we are told what we can't do rather than what we can do, and for me, it leads to a lot of confusion as to whether we can have wine shipped to us from out of state retailers and wineries. It would be a lot more clear for everybody if the laws were expressed in this way, but such is the law and such is life.

The most meaningful passage in the code is this one from Section 2:

"No person shall manufacture, with intent to sell, sell or expose or keep for sale, store, transport, import or export alcoholic beverages or alcohol, except as authorized by this chapter"

Unfortunately, the chapter never really comes back and defines how one actually is allowed to sell alcohol and gives rise to the confusion in this area. This gives the ABCC the power to determine what licensees can and can't do, and results in the ABCC being named as the defendant in legal cases in this area. In Section 22, the code does discuss the matter of transporting wine within the state in excruciating detail. It says that each individual truck a carrier uses to transport alcohol needs to have its own license. My understanding is that FedEx *does* have a license for every truck they use, and they're the ones shipping (not the retailers themselves). Therefore, it seems that retailers *should* be able to ship. That's why FedEx's from/to tables say they can ship out of Massachusetts to states that allow it.

In interpreting the laws governing these issues as a consumer, there seems to be a disconnect between what a reasonable person can ascertain from reading the code, and the reality of whether they are successful when they try to order wine from out of state. For example, out of state wineries that produce less than 30,000 gallons of wine a year (ie, small wineries) are legally allowed to ship wine to MA. However, they often don't, won't or can't in practice. They don't because Ship Compliant tells them not to. They won't because it costs them $100 to get a permit to ship to the state, and they can't because UPS and FedEx don't ship here.

I spoke with ABCC Executive Director Ralph Sacramone and General Counsel William Kelley about this, asking them the following questions:
  1. Is the MA ABCC currently advising retailers not to ship out of state?
  2. If so, on what grounds?
  3. Either way, are MA retailers allowed to sell wine on the Internet and ship to consumers within the state of MA?
They declined to provide a response due to pending litigation. I'm not clear on what that pending litigation might actually be.

I spoke with a half dozen retailers on this subject and I was frustrated by what I heard as a consumer. Here's why:
  1. There seemed to be a feeling that if they disregarded the ABCC's interpretation on the matter, and the ABCC decided to punish them with a fine or worse yet a 1-day suspension of their brick and mortar business it could be devastating financially.
  2. As a consumer, it really bothers me when the government tries to stifle business. Whether we're talking about shipping wine into or out of MA it doesn't seem right that 2 parties (a retailer and a consumer) who want to get together and conduct business should be limited by the state alcohol control board. The last thing we need is artificial barriers to spending.
  3. The Internet has been a great source of hope for retailers that are able to leverage it properly. If the most innovative wine retailers in the state are not able to effectively take advantage of their e-commerce/social media presence as a result of this limitation and if the situation persists, we will absolutely lose the very retailers that are interacting with us in the way we want to be interacted with.
  4. Further, if these retailers are unable to sell to out of state customers, it limits their ability to buy certain wines in large quantities. This in turn limits their ability to buy wines at the deepest discount levels and that means higher prices for consumers within the state.
  5. If the ABCC reads the law this way and is able to enforce their interpretation of the law, what's to stop them from even tighter regulation? They could stop all sales over the Internet, over the phone, or any other restrictive action they might want to take.
The situation is unfortunately symptomatic of a broader set of issues that goes all the way back to prohibition. It's easier said than done, but I think it's high time to scrap this bizarre state-by-state control of alcohol distribution and align on federal standards for how wine flows from the vineyard to our glasses. It's the only way I see to break the tension between the 21st Amendment (which gives each state the right to determine their own alcohol laws) and the Commerce Clause (which limits states from stifling business). If you're interested in this area of the wine world, I'd highly recommend reading this piece from Tom Wark. It is the most concise and informative piece of writing I've come across to date.

Fellow Consumers: Feel free to drop me an email if you have questions about getting wine shipped to you in Massachusetts. I think about this issue all the time.

Question of the Day: What do you think of this situation?

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2006 Schrader Cellars T6 Cabernet: The $125 Value Wine

Friday, August 7, 2009

This blog is all about wines of value. However, value is sometimes confused with wines that are cheap or less than a certain dollar amount. Value can be found at all price points. That said, there is an upper limit to how much I'd be willing to pay for the absolute best newly released bottle of wine I can imagine. How much? Let's look to the WWP QPR Calculator for guidance on this.

At this point in time, Wine Spectator has rated 173 Napa Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2006 vintage. In 2005, they rated a total of about 500 Napa Cabs, so they've got a ways to go. One wine has jumped out as being extremely highly rated and while expensive, I feel it is an interesting candidate for analysis.

Two wines from Schrader Cellars received 99 points:

  • 2006 Schrader Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley T6 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyards ($125)
  • 2006 Schrader Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard MM VI ($300)
According to the Wine Spectator Online database, no domestic wine has ever scored 100 points in one of their blind tastings. Furthermore, only 3 other wines have received 99 points. These Schrader wines are effectively the best Napa Cabs the magazine has ever rated.

Let's focus on the $125 T6 Cabernet. $125 may seem like a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a 750ml bottle of wine, and it is, but relative to other outstanding Napa Cabs it's really not that expensive. If you look back at the 2005 vintage, and look for the wines that are rated 90 points and above (Spectator's cut off for "outstanding") it looks like at around $45 you can find a 90+ point Napa Cab fairly easily. Brands like Buehler, Honig, Snowden and Cliff Lede are produced at high enough levels that they're readily available across the country. This defines the baseline for comparison that drives the WWP QPR Calculator.

Using this information, let's plug the 2006 Schrader T6 Cabernet into the calculator. With a baseline price of $45 and a rating of 99 points, the WWP QPR Calculator says 2.88: Very Good. I would indeed consider this wine a very good value for 2 reasons:
  1. Napa Cab is an expensive category
  2. A 99 point rating is extremely difficult to attain
Let's extend this a little further to see what the fair value for a 100 point Napa Cab would theoretically be. If we keep the baseline price at $45, change the quality of the wine to 100 points, and start adjusting the price until the wwpQPR is 1 we see that the $445 is the price at which the calculator indicates that the wine is of average value.

Would I buy pay $445 for a bottle of wine for enjoyment purposes? Heck no! I try to buy wines only if they're a very good value. Would I pay $150? I probably would. That would yield a wwpQPR of over 3.0- a very good value. But that's about as high as I could go. That's about the most I could justify in my mind. How about you?

There were only 250 cases produced of this wine. It's sold almost entirely through their mailing list and I've never seen it in a store. You might be able to find it online from a rare wine dealer or through an auction, but the price would surely be closer to $300. This scenario makes it tempting to join the Schrader mailing list and take your chances on the 2007 vintage. Say we think the T6 is again going to be a winner in 2007, and we were able to buy a bottle for $125. Then, the ratings come out and this time it "only" receives 95 points -or- when we drink it we think it's "outstanding" but not "a classic" and we'd give it roughly 95 points ourselves. How good a value would it be then?

Going back to the WWP QPR Calculator, we see a wwpQPR of 1.14: Above Average reported. It's still a decent value, but it's barely above average (1.0 being the average for the calculator). At that point, I'd definitely not buy it at $125. Combine this risk with the difficulties and costs associated with shipping wine to Massachusetts and I'd probably decide against buying wines like this even if I had the opportunity to do so via a mailing list. It's just too much of a hassle and there's too much risk. What do you think?

Further reading:
Question of the Day: What do you think of this? What would you pay for the best current release wine you can imagine?

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And the winner is...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The comments have been analyzed and we have a winner. In our "leave a comment for a chance to win a free Soirée In-Bottle Wine Decanter" contest we received a number of excellent comments, and although we can pick only one winner, everyone who left a comment gets a prize.

Last week, we wrapped up a giveaway related to "Wine Aerobics: Why You Should Aerate Your Wine". Andrew Lazorchak from Soirée walked us through a number of simple fundamentals which can help us all enjoy the wine we drink more, and paid particularly close attention to the subject of aeration. The comments were fantastic, and we truly appreciate everyone who read the piece and especially those who left a comment.

Katie pointed out a scenario where instantaneous aeration devices can be quite useful: When you've got a lot of bottles open. In her scenario, it was for a comparative tasting, but the same could be said for a party. Or if you're going on a bender. :)

Marc raised a question about "breathable" glasses and Andrew offered up his impressions and suggestions in this class of products. Heath Stone, whose comments way back on my very first wine aerator review made me aware of the existence of the Soirée, shared a useful tip: If you don't have an aerator handy "shake" the bottle of wine to give it some air. Fans of Molly Dooker wines in particular are fond of shaking them- the winery even recommends it.

Just a day before the contest ended, Mark swooped in with an amazing comment that captures the relationship between wine and air beautifully. Andrew confided that the last paragraph in particular nearly brought a tear to his eye. It was hard *not* to award the prize to Mark.

However, it was decided that the prize should go to the very first comment which was from @s1simps. She shared that she is new to wine drinking, preferring mostly sweeter white wines at this point, and appreciated the guidance on letting wines breathe. For the pro-active nature of her comment (being new to wine and seeking out information in wine blogs about aeration) Soirée will be happy to ship her one of their in-bottle wine decanters.

Congratulations to @s1simps, and to everyone who left a comment because Andrew would like to extend a $10 coupon for the Soirée online store to anyone who left a comment on the piece to thank you for your enthusiasm and participation.

My thanks again to Andrew for his generosity, and for sharing his thoughts on wine enjoyment with us. You can follow Andrew at VineyardVlog.com and at @WineSoiree on Twitter.

If you left a comment and would like to take advantage of the $10 coupon code offer, please E-mail me at wellesleywinepress@gmail.com and I'll let you know what the code is. Thanks again.

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