by Andrew Chalk
Sigel’s, one of the largest wine sellers in the Dallas area, has taken a pathbreaking decision to promote Texas wine. Going forward, only wine legally appellated as Texas (or a sub-division within Texas) will be placed on the Texas shelves in all eight stores. Wines designated ‘For Sale in Texas Only’ (FSITO, pronounced ‘footso’) will not be placed on the Texas shelves. Furthermore, most FSITO wines will be dropped in order to make shelf space for Texas wine. In accordance with the new policy, existing inventories of FSITO wine are being run down and the chain has placed orders with several Texas wineries to replace them, including Brennan Vineyards, Lost Draw Cellars, and Trilogy Cellars.
FSITO wines are bulk wine (typically from California’s central valley) that are labelled to look like Texas wine. By embellishing the back label with ‘For Sale in Texas Only’ (typically in a tiny, difficult to read typeface) the wines are exempt from Federal labelling laws that require the origin of a wine to be shown on the front label. Instead, FSITO sellers use symbology such as long-horned cattle, the colors of the state flag, allusions to Texas poets, claims of “Texas Style”, etc. on the label to mislead consumers into thinking that they are buying a Texas wine. By trading on state pride, the bulk wines sell at higher prices and volumes. The conceit has fooled a Master of Wine, the nation’s largest wine retailer, Costco, restaurant critics, and wine buyers. If the FSITO mechanism did not exist bulk wine sellers would be forced to honestly label their wine (usually as ‘American’, the most generic designation).
An example of a FSITO wine. The head of long-horned cattle (symbol of the University of Texas) adorns the front label but the wine is neither made in Texas nor made from Texas grapes. You recognize this as a FSITO wine by looking for the ‘For Sale In Texas Only’ designation buried deep in the back label. Last year, in a public letter, I asked this producer where the grapes came from and if any percentage was Texas grapes. They refused to say. My guess is that this is bulk wine made in California’s central valley and shipped to Texas by tanker truck for bottling.
The Texas wine industry is damaged by FSITO wine all down the supply line. Sales of FSITO wines subtract (as a first approximation, bottle-for-bottle) from Texas wine sales. When consumers discover that they have been duped, many just give up on Texas wine, figuring it is all FSITO. That leads to lower prices for Texas wine and lower plantings for Texas grapes. In recent years the improving quality of Texas wine has allowed the industry to make some headway against the FSITO sellers.
Commenting on the new policy, Sigel’s Director of Wine & Marketing, Jasper Russo, said “Part and parcel of what we as retailers do is to educate and inform our customers about the wines they are purchasing. Offering what we feel are the best examples and best values available from the differing wine regions around the world is made harder by such manufactured categories such as FSITO. We feel our customers are better served by the transparency inherent in the classical geographic appellations. Also we find that California wineries do a better job of making California wines and feel it is time for the Texas wine industry to stand proudly behind what they do best within the context of the rich winemaking heritage that the state has developed. The crutch of FSITO is a detriment to the continued evolution and progression of Texas wine.”
Sigel’s has served Dallas since 1905 and has a disproportionately large share of wine sales by virtue of its active tasting program, knowledgable staff, and sourcing of exclusives. It has held Texas-themed events in its stores as well in the past, such as a Texas spirits festival. Hopefully this policy change is a bellwether encouraging other wine sellers to separate out Texas wine from FSITO wine on their shelves.