Sunday, March 1, 2009


Recently, Steve Heimoff, writer for Wine Enthusiast as well as a blogger and fiction writer, posted on his own wine blog a piece about relationships. He spoke of a particular cult Cab producer that, while he was at Wine Spectator, should him the respect and courtesy one should to the press, when being dependent on them to help market thier wares. Well, Steve spoke of leaving WS for WE and this producer subsequently snubbed him until recently, where, now that the economy sucks and no one can really afford to spend lavish amounts of cash on high-dollar wine, this guy is looking for a review.

Needless to say, Steve was not impressed, and essentially told the guy to fuck himself/herself.
Right on, man!

Steve was stressing the importance of maintaining relationships in any business, but in the wine industry especially. And I agree with him wholeheartedly. Yet unlike Steve I will share with you my own story, and I won't be discreet and omit the wineries' name.

When I first started working in the restaurant business, just around 20 years ago, I was an aspiring singer in a rock band, "daylighting" as a busboy/server at a small bistro in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The place was primarily a bakery, yet served lunch through the week and dinner on select evenings. The wine list was small but offered terrific house wines by E. Guigal - their Cotes-du-Rhone Rouge, Blanc and Rosé. This was my first introduction to French wine, and it stuck with me for years, as I developed a real affinity for these wines and all wines from the Rhone (my humble little cellar today is made up of nearly 50% Rhone).

Wherever I was in this industry, inevitably moving back to Ohio and from restaurant to retail, I found myself always selling the wines of E. Guigal, and selling them proudly.

Fast forward to my present gig, which began 7 years ago, here as the wine buyer for Liquor Direct. You see, Kentucky is plagued by all of these exclusive agreements with various producers, importers and brokers, and the wines of E. Guigal (represented by Ex Cellars Wine Agency) is one of those wines, which if you simply travel across the Brent Spence Bridge (which links Ohio and Kentucky in the heart of the Cincinnati Metropolitan area), virtually every wine store in Ohio sells these wines. Yet here on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, no dice! Only 3 stores carry these wines, two of them our competition, one chain downstate in Louisville and Lexington. This exclusivity agreement was put in place long before we had gotten into the wine business, and for the life of me I cannot understand why it still stands.

Now exclusivities are fine when a brand - such as Quilceda Creek from Washington State, or Ken Wright from Oregon, goes exclusive with one store, because production is limited and there is just not enough to go around. Yet E. Guigal is quite large -275,000 cases of their Cotes du Rhone Rouge are produced in a year (as opposed to someone like Quilceda Creek, who produces only a fraction of this for all of its wines), so it begs the question, "why is it exclusive?"

I asked that very question not long after I started, calling the owner of the Ex Cellars Wine Agency, Fred Ek. Not really caring one iota of my curiosity, I was dismissed, rather rudely by Mr. Ek, evidently because I was with some pissant wine store who didn't merit the time or day. After the frustration of the initial call had passed, I decided to phone his partner, Patrick Will, to see if I could change his mind. No dice! Though Mr. Will was at least much more professional in his rejection. His reason behind not opening things up was that their was not enough wine.

Eventually, I spoke to distributors of Guigal in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina - all of whom said they had tons of Guigal to sell, and I realize I was once again getting the shaft.

Guys like these take the easy way out - they fill a purchase order of considerable amounts and without having to lift a finger (or visit a particular market) - they make their money. Easy-peasy right? But at what cost is that for the producer they represent? I admit that US consumers have been tough on French producers this past decade, but I still get calls for their wines. I just know now that for wherever I go in this business from now on, I won't bother even acknowledging Guigal's existence since they certainly could care less about my stores.

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