By Laura Ness
Some see Tom Wark as an advocate for the wine industry, given his role as the Executive Director of National Association of Wine Retailers since 2007, but he prefers to think of himself as an outspoken voice for the “little guy.” Since 2004, he’s been unapologetically airing concerns over the three-tier distribution system and lack of consumer choice in the marketplace, lambasting what he terms “rent seeking, special interests and other self serving groups.”
Asked to name them specifically, he points to the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of America, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, nearly every state wholesaler trade organization, nearly every state based wine retailer organization, Southern-Glazers and the rest of the top wholesalers.
Says Wark, “Every single one of these organizations couch their objections to direct shipment of wine in terms of a healthy public policy when in fact they constantly pursue policies that harm consumer access to wine in order to line their own pockets.”
That’s the stalwart, direct and convincing voice that readers of Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog, have come to know. Wark gives no quarter to those he feels are maligning and misrepresenting others for the purpose of personal gain. “So, yes, I’m an advocate, but I could also legitimately be labeled a loudmouth.”
The Fermentation blog came about in 2004 when Wark was extremely interested in the direct shipping issue. Says Wark, “This was before the Granholm decision and states were all over the board. However, there was one consistent thing: wholesalers across the country were eagerly ponying up money to prevent wider access to wines via direct shipping and working to assure consumers only had the wine choices wholesalers thought they ought to have. This was certainly something I was interested in.”
Of the name he chose, he says, “When I named my blog I wanted a name that would allude to thinking through the issues as well as allude to wine. I like to think that the way I examine issues is through the fermentation of those issues in my mind.”
The platform, one could say pulpit, in this case, has served him well as a vehicle for hashing out his thoughts and advocating for change to the institutions he feels are hampering the ability of small fry producers to compete against the larger fish that constantly threaten tsunamis in the fish bowl.
Wark explains, “As the executive director for the National Association of Wine Retailers, I have had the opportunity to meld my own deeply held feelings about this industry with the interests of a remarkable set of retailers willing to demand a level playing field.” He feels they are making some progress, but the war is far from over. While many states changed their laws to allow out-of-state wineries to ship wine to consumers, at the same time, some states banned out-of-state retailers from shipping, while allowing in-state retailers to ship wine to consumers within the state. The state’s rights debate is far from over, and the wholesalers’ deathgrip on their power to decide which brands get support and which don’t is far from losing its potency. Headway is being made, but premature “Mission Accomplished” banners are not going to be flying here any time soon.
Wark, a native of Northern California, likes to point to his auspicious beginnings in the wine industry as accidental contact back in 1970 that left a lasting impression. He managed to dump the contents of a jug of Sebastiani Red all over his mother’s freshly waxed kitchen floor. Although that first impact might be considered negative, it was certainly his first exposure to wine.
After graduating with a Masters in Diplomatic History from San Francisco State, he began his career as a wine marketer and publicist in 1990, opening his own consultancy, Wark Communications, in 1994, to serve small and medium sized wineries and wine-related companies with media, communications and marketing services.
Wark credits people like Bill and Sandra MacIver, former co-owners and founders of Sonoma County’s Matanzas Creek Winery, with acting as mentors. He refers to Bill as “one of the most important and outspoken advocates for the small winery and small grower this industry had ever seen, acted as an inspiration for me. And for that matter, Bill’s wife and the founder of Matanzas Creek Winery, Sandra MacIver, showed me the power and importance of pursuing goals with an empathy and purpose.”
Among the chief causes he has proudly taken up include:
Legal Interstate Direct Shipment of Wine
“This is a critical opportunity for wine consumers, wineries and retailers that has been and still is stymied by rent-seeking, special interests and other self serving groups who treat the wine market and consumers as tools. I’ve taken the opportunity to point out these groups, particularly wholesaler middlemen, and their miserable actions, stale ideas and duplicitous ways of working.”
The “Natural Wine” Movement
Wark feels this is “a deeply interesting reaction to globalism and the corporatization of wine, but its most ardent champions have, over the years, taken to maligning and misrepresenting those that don’t embrace their movement. I’ve taken the opportunity to try to stand up for winemakers who have been the target of the immature and nasty champions of Natural Wine by calling out the charlatans who have attempted to raise up themselves and their movement by standing on the shoulders of others, then kicking them in the face.”
The Three-Tier System
Nothing incenses Wark more than this arcane construct, which he firmly believes to be the single most detrimental mechanism to the artisan winery in the United States. “This highly archaic, antediluvian and outmoded system that legally forces wineries into the orbit and arms of middlemen who demonstrate no interest in the wineries or wine consumers has harmed the development of the wine industry. I’ve tried to point out the philosophical, practical, and principled reasons to oppose and overturn this wine sales paradigm by being an outspoken proponent for alternative systems of wine sales.”
The Emergence of Blogs
As one who has exploited the power of the blog to advance his agenda and rail against the predatory machine, Wark recognizes the power of blogging to give broader exposure to alternative voices. “Few things have excited me more in the 25 years I’ve worked in the wine industry. It has allowed an explosion of voices, many of whom have added deeply to our perspective and understanding of wine, and who without the blogging platforms would never have been known. I’ve tried to be an advocate for these folks and this new approach to wine media and publishing by founding the American Wine Blog Awards, helping to found the Wine Bloggers Conference (now “Wine Media Conference) and drawing attention to unique voices.”
Recreational Cannabis: Where Weed Meets Wine
Without doubt, Wark is the poster child for raising concern over the impact of legal recreational pot on wine sales. A firm supporter of legal cannabis, he firmly believes it will negatively impact the wine industry be reducing wine sales. “I think the wine industry needs to prepare for this eventuality rather than help the cannabis industry more easily compete against wine.”
All his ranting and advocacy on behalf of the “little guys” has earned him not just recognition—and in some cases, rancor—from the targets of his lobs. In fact, his involvement in such issues caused Mike Steinberger of Slate Magazine to describe Wark as “the wine world’s first wine muckraker.”
Undoubtedly muckraking, or whatever you want to label expressing your contrary opinion about a repressive regime, can be a potentially dangerous occupation. Just look at Jamal Khashoggi.
We asked Wark if he’d ever been threatened for his outspoken views. “Over the years, I’ve received numerous very nasty emails…that are always anonymous. The most recent one reminded me that they knew where I lived and my son’s name.”
We wondered if there was any hope of dismantling the onerous three-tier system in our lifetime, and Wark was upbeat. “Yes, there is hope that the most onerous parts of the three-tier system will be dismantled in our lifetime. When it happens, it will be as a result of a coalition of craft brewers, artisan distillers and consumers who together make the case that having to sell their products to a wholesaler is detrimental to their economic prospects and a severe limitation on consumer access to these products.”
What kind of legacy does Wark want to leave? Says Wark, “I think about helping my four year-old son, Henry George, grow up to be a good man and being known as a good husband to Kathy. But where my career is concerned, I have a great deal more to do. I want to be involved in helping change the wine industry to be more consumer-friendly, and based less on archaic systems that hinder innovation. I want to work with the smaller and driven companies that believe making a living and product should reflect their deeply held ideals. I want to use Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog to raise consequential ideas.”
And we’re quite certain—and certainly proud—that he’s not backing down from his thought-provoking diatribes on behalf of the David’s of the world, while the Goliath’s seethe in seemingly anonymous animosity.