February 23, 2006

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Wine travels, doesn’t sing
From grape, to barrel to red-tape jungle
By Tim Protzman  tprotzman@hotmail.com 

We all know someone like Keith. Someone’s who lucky in business, but unlucky in love. Rich and handsome, but hell-bent on repeatedly entering into the wrong relationships, something Dr. Phil calls “the Mickey Rooney Complex.” He called me one evening and begged me to watch his girlfriend’s kids. The regular babysitter got sick and he wanted to celebrate his friend’s birthday at a trendy, hard-to-get-reservations restaurant. I watched the girls and the couple was home by 11:30 p.m. No biggie.

“How was dinner?” I inquired.

“Okay,” was the lukewarm reply.

“Was the food good?” I asked, having heard rave reviews.

“It was nice, but it just didn’t sing to me,” was Keith’s response. What a nice way of saying you had a terrible

time. The relationship ended, but the phrase stuck with me.

The other night I gathered a few bottles of wine in the kitchen and asked them to sing.

No answer. I tried it in French.

“Chantez,” I intoned.

Still no answer. What I was looking for were their stories. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Their silence told me I had to discover it for myself, and the place to start was the Importer.

The name of the wine importer is listed on the bottle. It’s a federal requirement, along with the governmental warning. But the fun part of the importer’s role is the searching. The importer gets to go to the vineyard or wine producer and try the wines.

Two of the importers I spoke with specialize in Spanish wines and had just come back from La Mancha, a Spanish province south of Madrid. La Mancha’s known for white wines made to be drunk young. Recently, some of the more daring producers have been planting the tempranillo grape, resulting in fruity, inexpensive reds that are at their best when they’re young and fresh. The people from Garnier and Province Imports travel to Spain twice a year, tasting and searching for wines that fit the American palate. They spoke of being taken into the Vat Room and sampling the wine right out of the aging tank. They talked of stopping for an afternoon meal and tasting pitchers of local wine so delicious that they just had to find the source. Once a wine is chosen for import the hard part begins after the signing of the import agreement.

The candidates for import must produce enough wine to make importation profitable. The importers spoke sadly of discovering a perfect wine only to find out it was produced in a very small quantity. But, they agreed to stay in contact and hoped the producer would expand production.

Once the import agreement is signed with the producer, the importer begins to design the label. The label must meet governmental guidelines established by the Treasury Department’s Tax and Tobacco Bureau, which is part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The FDA also has a say in the label’s content. The name of the wine, the producer and the region or grape type must be shown. The Surgeon General’s warning about operating machinery and consumption during pregnancy must be on the label along with percentage of alcoholic content by volume. Once the label design is approved, the producer begins the labeling process.

The newly labeled wine is then picked up at the vineyard by a freight forwarder who loads up the palleted cases (12 cases per pallet, 12 bottles per case) and delivers them to the Port of Embarkation. Most Spanish wines leave from Barcelona or Marseilles, France, bound not for the United States but for Rotterdam, Holland, which serves as a drop-off point for wines bound for Northern Europe and England. At this point the pallets are encased in those tractor trailer containers for easy off-loading.

After a long ocean voyage, the wines end up in New Jersey (some get to go Boston and a few go to Savannah), where they enter a bonded warehouse. Technically, once the wines leave the vineyard they belong to the importer, and they’ll already have been paid for. In the bonded warehouse the government collects the excise tariff, which is calculated on the gallon volume of alcohol in the whole shipment. This is also paid by the importer. Now the wine is ready for distribution.

Most wine that enters New Hampshire comes through the Law Warehouse in Nashua, a privately owned storage facility that charges the state a storage fee. The importer has agreements with an in-state licensed broker. The broker promotes the wine and ensures it will have shelf space either in the State Liquor stores or in another retail establishment, like a grocery store. The broker receives a commission on the wine sold in the state.

Once the wine enters the Law Warehouse it’s the property of the State of New Hampshire and the importer is paid by the state for the entire shipment. When a retail customer places an order, called a “market basket,” they’re paying the state. The upside of this is that smaller retail outlets can deal with one distributor and receive one monthly bill. The downside is that some wines aren’t available in New Hampshire, although the ones that are available cost less than in neighboring states. So the next time you purchase a wine take a moment to appreciate the long journey through many lands and many hands that little bottle has taken. 

E-mail your comments and wine stories to tprotzman@hotmail.com.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com



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