Shipping Blues

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Shipping Blues
It would be no problem for me to establish a truly kick-ass 21st-century wine cellar, assuming I could scrape together the cash. Trouble is, I'd have a tough time stocking my cellar from shops in Brooklyn, where I currently live. What I'd be required to do is cellar like an old coot: shamble up to Sherry-Lehmann or into Crossroads, jaw and gab with their exceedingly competent and knowledgeable salesfolk, scour their catalogs and so on. What I can't do is sit back on my besotted ass in Park Slope and, ably assisted by my brand-spankin'-new iBook (graphite, fast, fairly cool), fire off e-commerce orders to the far-flung wilds of Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino and Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz and Monterey and Washington state and Oregon?the American viticultural Gold Coast?and buy my wine directly from the source, from the wineries. Why? Because it's disallowed by Prohibition-era laws that forbid individual wineries to ship wine to individual consumers in certain states. New York is one of those states.

This direct-shipment business has become something of a grand controversy in the wine world. Frank Prial devoted his column in the Times to it last week, and most of the wine rags have been all over it for the better part of the past few years. It boils down to this: California?and many other wine-exporting states?want to be able to ship their product straight to their customers, effectively diminishing, if not cutting out altogether, the various middlemen. The various middlemen?distributors and retailers?would obviously rather not see the wineries execute a complete end-run around their business.

Now, I'm not really in much of a mood to take a position on this issue one way or another. I agree with Prial: time and inertia and the Internet will eventually break down the local laws, and we'll be able to receive direct shipment of whatever the hell we want. What I'm interested in here is the decline of an entire cluster of wine-buying experiences. Most prominently, I'm concerned about the decline of the wine store as an expression of personal identity. Wine is, to a degree, a measure of character, as is the place from which one buys one's wine. And if anybody can ship wine to anybody else, then I think something will get lost in the process. Liberty, in a sense, will undermine tradition. Or at least a perception of style.

What do I mean by that? Well, it's largely a big-city issue. (It's also a private-versus-public issue. People who choose to trade their own stocks online will naturally be inclined to buy their wine online, avoiding the public process of seeking wine advice in the same way they avoid investment advice?from human beings, anyhow.) Wine shops in big cities are expressions of different wine-drinking personalities. In New York, we have shabby-yet-ethical, reverse-snooty (Crossroads); High Church old-school snobbish (Sherry-Lehmann); clearinghouse (Astor); young money, tinged with insecurity (Best Cellars); New Economy (Chelsea Wine Vault); authenticity-addicted (Italian Wine Merchants); San Francisco wannabe (Union Square Wines & Spirits); and so on. In between, dozens of local specialists: Bordeaux-philes and Rieslingeers and Spanish-ites, et cetera, et cetera. You can easily develop a persona based on the places where you buy your booze. You can shape that persona depending on how you feel, how you're dressed?who you hope to be. Similar possibilities exist in the Bay Area, in Chicago, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Seattle, in Portland.

I would sort of miss this, much as I'd like to be able to take direct shipments from the source. Not that I think that the distinctive wine retailers of New York are doomed by direct shipment. They'd probably soldier on, simply because, for urbanites, there's still plenty of psychic value to be obtained by slipping into shops and browsing. So we can buy all that stuff online. So what? There are times when a city-dweller wants to dwell in his city, wants to get out and about.

However, chances are good that direct shipment will throw the distribution and retailing networks into at least temporary disarray, until they can figure out how to realign themselves, develop new niches. In the short term, I anticipate panic. Then I suspect we'll see numerous second- and third-tier shops begin to face crises. The big boys will hang around, obviously, because of brand loyalty. Sherry-Lehmann isn't going anywhere. They've been wise to invest a huge amount of capital in their loyalists. Likewise Crossroads, which will accidentally combust (somebody will bump into a bottle of Barolo, break it, and it will violently combine with some residual rotgut gin spilled on the floor, and?) before it goes under.

Will any of this matter, ultimately? No. Commerce will proceed apace, and assuming that California's latest vineyard scourge, the glassy-winged sharpshooter (a very destructive little insect), doesn't destroy every single grape bunch in the state, New Yorkers will someday soon be able to click their way to chardonnay. Or pick up the phone, or whatever. What bugs me?and this is strict nostalgia here, I know?is that a means of urban self-definition, like neckties on men in restaurants, will be irretrievably lost. Already I spot guys in wine shops who, to put it mildly, look like pure hell. The shop means nothing to them. They have no respect for it; it's simply a box full of liquor. I feel mildly embarrassed when I show up at a fine shop without a jacket and a decent pair of shoes on. I feel that I've shown a disrespect for the operation that no amount of my money could alleviate. So imagine what the vibe will be when we're all sitting at home, eyes glued to the screen, shelling out thousands for the best Napa has to offer, in sweatpants, shirtless, unshaven, barefoot.

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