Friday, April 24, 2009

Four Wine Questions For: Tom Wark

Welcome to my fifth interview in my 4WQ4 blog feature. This is the first 4WQ4 for 2009 and if you are not familiar, this is a quarterly article where I ask four Q&A’s to a “celebrity” in the wine industry.

When I use the word "celebrity" I am not just referring to those who are making the wine headlines in glossy magazines, but just as important "celebrating" with and for those who are in the background making a difference in the way we think, drink, purchase, and even for a few of us, how we sell wine. If you haven't met Thomas Wark, here is an opportunity for you to find out how he is making a difference and contributing to how we drink and think about wine.

When I first started wine blogging and reading other wine blogs, I came across Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog owned by Tom Wark. It is one of the most read wine blogs amongst wine consumers, as well as the wine industry. It was from his wine blog, I discovered there are many "wine-sides" to Tom Wark and they all mesh together well. Located in the Sonoma Valley wine region of California, Wark is a 25-year wine marketing and public-relations professional and is the owner of Wark Communications, specializing in solutions to address the unique needs of the wine industry. And as an advocate for wine blogging, Wark addressed the validation and credibility of wine blogs by designing and hosting the American Wine Blog Awards.

And last, but certainly not least, Wark serves as the Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, where he promotes and manages legal and legislative efforts on behalf of wine consumers and wine retailers, opening more states for retailers-to-adult wine consumer shipping.

W5: Right up front Tom, this may be the toughest question of all four, but I have to ask you on behalf of Walla Walla wine lovers everywhere - - what you know about Walla Walla wines and overall the wines from Washington State?

TW: Over the years I've drunk numerous WA state wines. What's always struck me about them, particularly the reds, is their balance. I've come to count on WA Cabs, Merlots and blends to deliver structure. That's important to my palate.

W5: As the Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, could you explain to the readers more about the association regarding what you do and will we ever see a day that wine consumers all over America will have free access to the wines of their choice.

TW: I don't think we'll see a day anytime soon when all Americans in every state have access to the total American wine market. There are simply some states where the culture and traditions make that difficult. However, I do believe that we will, and must, see a liberalization of American wine law if only because the evolution of the wine culture in America has far outlived the usefulness of the traditional state-mandated three-tier distribution system that was created in the 1930s and does not serve consumers or an industry that have both changed drastically since the three-tier system was put in place.

SWRA represents non-winery wine shippers. After the Granholm Supreme Court decision, many states choose to or were forced to allow wine shipping from out-of-state. However, few of them extended shipping rights to retailers. The upshot of this was that while consumers in many states were able to have wine shipped to them from wineries that choose to ship, those same consumers could not get access to hundreds of thousands of wines that were either imported, not shipped by wineries or were older vintages. Many retailers carried these wines and would love to ship them across state lines, but were prohibited from doing so because retailers were not included in the expanded shipping rights that came after the Granholm decision.

This restrictive posture toward retailers resulted from many things including: 1) Retailers not being politically organized, 2) Powerful wholesalers who used that power to excluded retailers from being included in new wine shipping laws, 3) an unwillingness of wineries and retailers to work on behalf of each other's rights, and 4) a general misunderstanding by consumers of the importance of having access to retailer shipping as well as winery shipping. SWRA uses litigation, legislation and education to address the restrictive laws that affect consumer access to wines.

W5: Any memorable incident or the most blatant quote you have heard or witnessed from someone who was willing to compromise truth to protect their own financial interests by opposing wine lovers having free access to the wines of their choice? Any in particular that really deserves to be at the top of list of the Wall of Shame? And if it is a direct quote and you think they are mighty proud of that quote, we can certainly use their name.

TW: I'm particularly fond of this one: "Most Americans were satisfied with the system [the wine distribution system] as it is except for a small, very vocal segment who say they can't get their bottle of 1997 whatever." - Craig Wolf, Wine & Spirit Wholesalers Association, New York Times - January 30, 2008

That said, wholesalers in particular have fought to keep consumers from having access to any wines they don't themselves provide to retailers and restaurants based largely on the notion that direct shipping will lead to minors obtaining wine. Based on this charge they argue that direct shipping should not be allowed at all. Yet you never hear them say that brick and mortar sales of wine should be shut down because minors can get their hands on wine in that manner. The wholesalers' arguments on this issue have been duplicitous, fully incoherent, obtuse and often straight out lies. Yet, they know that lawmakers aren't inclined to take kindly to laws that will "hurt the children". Yet, to-date, no member of law enforcement in any state and no alcohol regulator in any state has said they have seen a problem develop as a result of minors obtaining wine via Internet sales.

W5: Here is what I know about Tom Wark: He has indefatigable energy traveling to state capitals working on behalf of wine consumers so they may have freedom from 21st century prohibition. He is the creator of the American Wine Bloggers Awards (Boo-hiss! I'm jealous because I have never won a AWB) and he has a crush on redheads that give of themselves to save the world from "Parkerization." Any trivia or scandal that my readers or the National Enquirer would want to know more about Thomas Wark?

TW: I've been very lucky in this business because I've have some very good and inspiring mentors including Bill & Sandra McIver of Matanzas Creek Winery, John Hinman of Hinman & Carmichael, and Gracelyn Guyol of Gracelyn Associates. I've always believed that we all do our best work when we have a fire in our belly. The fire in my belly has remained lit for quite some time. Beyond that some folks might find it interesting that I sold Kirby Vacuum cleaners door-to-door and was good at it, I make the best beef jerky in California, I mix a damn good Manhattan, and if I could make a six figure income off blogging I would move to the beach in Mexico and make that living.


seanbrendan said...

Hi Catie - very nice interview, thanks for sharing this perspective. is there a place for someone new to the industry to get a download on all the many rules and regulations of wine in washington state?

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Sean, Thanks for checking in and also for the nice compliment. There are a few places online that can give you some insight:
WA Liquor Board,Wine Institute and Free The Grapes also has some info.
Hope this helps.

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