A Toast to Roses and Tangerines

(originally published in 2009… sharing now with new friends…)

So this morning I decided to turn the clocks back rather than forward as we did this past Sunday morning.  And just for my personal time keeping records, and just so the much-appreciated small band of readers out there can keep track, today we are beginning the early parts of March 2009.  My turning back of the clocks this morning is metaphorical, and it began with the turning on of the radio upon arriving to the shop today, opting for the radio show I’ve not listened to since the giddy days of early 2007.

Ah, 2007, the days of the flying cases!  I remember so fondly how easily and with great joy the more than one million wholesale dollars of 2005 Burgundy and Bordeaux moved gracefully through my electronic offers into the collections of my eager collectors.  Each day greeted me with another offer from my negociants, to be translated into a tale of desire, resulting in record breaking sell-through, rivalled by no other offers I had experienced in my time as an owner.

That was not so long ago, that giddy year of 2007, and I remember listening to this same classical radio station, this listener supported station, thinking to myself how lucky my shop must be to have finally escaped the need for constant, costly advertising.  I had found the magic bullet, these perfect wines, marketed as futures to affluent folks with time to spare.  Marketed intelligently, shrewdly and with margins as tight as these violin bow strings I listened to everyday.  I was praised daily for my work, my words, my writings, my selection; I thought this would surely last forever.

March 2008 came so quickly.  That month began to mark a world that remains completely unexplainable for me.  I look back to a time now only two years past and I can barely recognize the man in the mirror.  The music is as clear, the violin bow string margins are just as they were, but the people are gone.  And the conversations I now have with the souls I come in contact with, the people who once shared a passion for the wine business – be they gifted authors or merchants of these finest wines – are truly in need of being told.

There is a dangerous trend presenting itself before the wine community today in the form of blogs, social network groups and more.  You see certain pages, you read ever increasingly popular posts and people assume the world is all roses and tangerines.  The world of fine wine is being presented as some glowing love festival, where the fine wine merchants are happily flittering away their days over half full glasses of exotic wine with nary a care for the future of their businesses.  Perhaps the authors producing the  mushroom cloud effect of wine blogs out there could be cited as one source for this view of overt wine-joy permeating the minds of some.  But let’s not forget, the overwhelming majority of these blog-authors benefit from full-time-jobs – careers NOT in the wine business.

Over the course of 25 years in the wine business, I have yet to experience the days I am witnessing today.  Bloggers be happy, social networkers post away, but the facts remain.  No matter how passionate the prose I offer on a bottle of wine, no matter the thrill of discovery I bestow, not a single bottle of wine moves through my cash register until it is offered for sale at a drastic discount.  And before one single person points to a downturn in the economy, let me assure all that this trend, in my market particularly, began as a small camp fire even before 2007, becoming a raging, all encompassing forest fire over these last several months.  My dream that 2007 had ended the days of “The Sale” was nothing but a short nap from reality.

How to save the fine wine market?  Is it through passionate prose?  I asked one of the most famous authors of our time, a person whose book inspired me to continue my own goals of penning the next Great American Wine Story, “What is your advice for me?”  The response was honest, true and straight to the point.  So very few are the people who genuinely care for the world of fine wine writing that this most gifted of souls has not been contacted in more than a quarter of a year. If passionate prose will not save the world of fine wine, what ever will?

I subscribe to the electronic offers of some dozen merchants across America.  Daily, often thrice daily, I receive offers that very much appear to come from someone condemned to the shuttering of their business doors.  How a merchant is to survive selling these beautiful wines at such prices is beyond me.  I know personally that without the assistance of the suppliers these prices would not exist.  But what happens when a supplier is forced to destroy margins?  The vineyards and wine-makers whose wines would not move are then discontinued.  Discontinued wineries, and the families behind them, go out of business.  The consumer just bought that small family wine for 50% off, great for Joe Consumer.  But the family who worked so hard to bring that wine to market now faces foreclosure.

I will confess to finding some comfort in the anonymity of the blog world however.  I am able to express words of the most personal and intimate nature here, words that few will ever read, words that fewer still truly give a care about.  So I suppose that we should just be happy that the blog world is so, well, positive, full of roses and tangerines.  At the very least it’s a place to come and escape from the reality of the world, the reality that the fine wine business is dying.  Dying even as America becomes the largest consumer for wine in the world. 

I guess it’s not what we’re drinking that’s important any more, just that we’re drinking…

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
chambertin@sbcglobal.net

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