The Business of Booze

I had a customer ask me the other day what I thought about a particular California cabernet.  I said it was a bit too "business-oriented" for me, but that it was a good example of what many people like these days.  Granted, that was quite a loaded answer, but nevertheless he was compelled by the vague undertone of that statement to ask further questions.  I explained to this man the difference between wine made by people who like making wine, versus wine made by people who want to make as much money as possible.  Using more new oak to age a wine makes the wine richer and silkier, which then garners higher ratings from popular magazine critics, which then creates higher sales, etc.  At the same time, it takes away from the true flavors of the grape itself. The cabernet we were speaking about was an example of business getting in the way of beauty.  I told the customer I preferred to drink wines that were “wine-oriented.”

Again, as I've written before, this is really no different than any other business where artistry or talent is being sold.  Musicians once revered for their individuality often sell out to corporations looking for a catchy jingle to promote their ad campaigns.  Many talented people are willing to change the way they create if it means earning more money. Whether it's the Rolling Stones changing their lyrics to play on Ed Sullivan, or a wine maker adding more oak to his wine, if there's a way to make your product safer and more palatable to the general public then why not do it?  Sure, it's great to be adored by those who truly appreciate your talent, but can you make a living from them?  It's a decision that some wine makers are forced to confront.  That, or selling their venture off to a larger company who'll just do the same anyway.  That's the business of booze production.  We know that most people just want "smooth" in the end.  Are you willing to give it to them?

The business aspects that we at K&L deal with aren't too different.  As a company, we have to decide which products to carry and what those products say about us as a retailer.  A wine selection is almost like a record collection.  You can go over to someone's house and tell a lot about who they are as a person by what they're listening to.  If a store only chooses to stock big label brands and mass produced products then you know where they stand as a retailer: $$$.  Some smaller stores only carry products from independent producers, which probably means they're passionate about handcrafted quality.  I say "probably" because no one I know of is getting rich off of retailing biodynamic-only wines.  K&L is somewhat unique in the sense that we cater to both sides.  We've been doing business with some of the larger corporations for decades, but still take pride in discovering smaller producers and supporting them directly.  Every day I wake up thankful that there is such a store that allows me to make a decent living and still focus on the promotion of niche spirits.  The business of booze retail is definitely a balancing act.  Is it all about matching margins and swift sales, or is there some thought put into what you sell?

Finally there's the customer's business to discuss.  As consumers, we all have the ability to choose where we spend our money.  What interests us as booze consumers?  Are we just looking for something to get us drunk?  Do we want something to get us drunk that actually tastes good?  Are we possibly searching for an experience, something with actual heart?  There are a myriad of liquor stores that can satisfy the first two desires, but it may take a little effort to find a place willing to sacrifice sales for integrity and credibility.  How far we're willing to go to support what we believe in is completely up to us.  Not only with where we shop, but with what we buy.  Is it worth our money to buy that $100 bottle of locally-made, small-production whiskey, or are we fine with supporting the larger corporations who can mass-produce it for less?  Should we even care about alcohol enough to ask ourselves these questions?  That's the business of consumerism and it's something that every entity involved with booze studies with great ferocity.

There's a lot of crazy stuff that goes on in between these three estates as well.  Distribution, importing, wholesaling, and grey-marketing.  There are backroom deals between companies, driven salesmen who'll sacrifice the brand for a quick buck, mergers that eliminate competition, and producers jockeying for more exposure.  It's really quite fascinating.  I never had any intention of being a businessman and I still don't know if I consider myself one.  However, that being said, the business of booze is constantly interfering with my love of booze.  There are both wines and spirits I used to enjoy that have been forever ruined by what I learned of their business practices.  There are both companies and customers who want us to carry products we don't want to support and they want answers as to why we choose not to do so.  In the end, I just want to drink good booze made by good people and help other people to do the same.  The business of booze, however, is always lingering in the background, waiting to interfere with this ideal and plotting to do otherwise.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll