With new wine sales channels (like wine clubs) proliferating like mushrooms after a spring rain, I’m contemplating creating a new law of popular thought—like Murphy’s Law—except my law is about the forever altered line that once separated wine editorial from wine commerce.
I call it Vee’s Law of Compunction. The name of the law itself is a misnomer, and maybe that’s the point – compunction indicates a distress of conscience, and I don’t think that exists, even if it should.
208 weeks ago or 48 months ago it would have been unfathomable and heretical for an organization that notably reviews wines to also sell wine. Hidebound tradition dictated that those that review wine should not be a party to the commerce of wine. This extended to magazine mastheads as well, yes.
Then, Gary Vee, owner of a wine store in New Jersey, started doing reviews. Sure, he took some flak based on the suggested impropriety of reviewing what you’re selling (he was also greatly abetted by the notion of, “new territory, new rules”), and he artfully deflected that criticism with statements indicating that he reviews fairly and often dismisses wines that he sells. Of course, his is an accurate statement even if a violation of the wine world’s unspoken rules of propriety and clearly a gray area when contrasted against his ethos of, “Trust YOUR palate.”
With that watershed moment, proverbially speaking, the horse left the barn, the ship sailed and the genie left the bottle … A precedent had been set and the blurred lines of what wine content is and where it comes from organically disappeared along with these unspoken rules of fair, ethical play.
Since then, traditionally ethical media properties like the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine magazine and other beacons of wine editorial have started their own wine clubs (along with a slew of others) and have filled the breach of branded (and implicitly recommended) wine club sales with consumer’s to near overabundance.
To fully understand the implications of new areas to sell wine is to understand the notion of sales “channels.”
When I interviewed for my first job out of school I needed the HR recruiter to explain to me what “channel” meant as she referred to the channel sales job for which I was interviewing. My business naiveté faux pas aside, I now well know that a “channel” is one specific sales focus area for an organization.
Wineries have the three-tier distribution channel (and within that channel you have on and off-premise placement), the tasting room channel, the direct-to-consumer channel and, now, exceedingly, the gray market channel with intermediaries that are little more than short term pimps for a tarted up darling.
Despite the inherent nature of the gray market, all wineries (all businesses!) are looking for alternate sales channels. Where can a winery sell its wine where, perhaps, they haven’t sold it in the past?
This background brings us to the latest entrant in the “I recommend wine and, by the way, I can sell it to you to” school of New Thought—The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast.
Lost in the din of the holidays, The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast is likely going to miss the au courant naysayers in the online court of public opinion. However, I can’t help but feel reticence, perhaps even my own compunction, about its launch despite being a bystander.
I should note, I like Wine Enthusiast magazine, I’m a long-time subscriber to the magazine, a confirmed recycler of the catalog, and I send emails to the publisher and I get replies. In addition, I am an admirer of their principal wine critic, Steve Heimoff; an affection that has grown over the last several years. Yet, I’m not an apologist, either …
Neither a Huck Finn whitewash nor a Gary Vee traipse across boundary lines of traditional demarcation do not create validation for a business decision. A mandate from the Gods of Capitalism doesn’t become so just because the rules of engagement have changed.
In short, I’m sorely disappointed that Wine Enthusiast has chosen to create a wine club, indelibly erasing the lines for ethical behavior that separated those that opined on wine from those that sold wine.
Now, Wine Enthusiast Companies will rightfully and fully say the wine club is separate from the magazine; more aligned with the wine accessory catalog business than the magazine. Yet, to me, it still feels like a shift in the force, to use a Star Wars reference – instead of the recognition of an area of profitable commerce, it smacks of the loss of the last vestige of integrity.
Destroyed in the process of what’s right has been a decision for right now.
Now, make no mistake the majority of the soon-to-be members of their “The Winery Club” have no idea that a wine magazine selling wine crosses the border into the dubious, nor do they care. Yet, that’s exactly the point. Perhaps, Vee’s Law of Compunction isn’t required because that indicates the opportunity for regret, but simple common sense is required …
For me, the wine world is a respite from the real world, an oasis of integrity and the right side of right and wrong.
Wine Enthusiast launching a wine club feels like the end of innocence, and the realization that my Mom was, indeed, right—just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And, failing that, compunction is the feeling you get when you violate your own standards.