By Stephanie Cuadra
Consumers wield power as arbiters of taste—but only to the extent that choice is deliberately exercised. In the reverse scenario, end users are prone, as if by default presumably, to casually surrender in favor of the most readily available goods and services. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than the wine industry, worth billions in the United States alone, which in spite of an epochal shift benefitting the informed buyer, continues to unilaterally dictate what most people drink. Numbers matter. But if the latest trends in wine sales matter too, the powers-that-be would be wise to heed what wine drinkers have to say.
At the center of change in American wine consumption lies a basic desire to simplify the passage from producer to consumer. Unsurprisingly, DtC models of business are setting the pace for the wine industry as a whole with the emphasis squarely on consumers. From a Utah wine merchant’s perspective, one has to question where this leaves oenophiles in a Control State environment, where ‘control’ notably is the operative word. The shortest and easiest conclusion is self-evident—even bleak, perhaps.
Utah has earned itself an awkward reputation which touches a nerve with drinkers as it echoes the nation’s not-so-distant prohibitionist past. The mere mention of a state monopoly governing the sale of alcohol can sound downright despotic to some. Furthermore, among other idiosyncrasies the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control distinguishes itself for playing the gatekeeper of alcohol distribution within state boundaries while steering clear of the promotion or marketing of drinking behavior. Put plainly, while the rest of the country is told what to drink, Utahns have to think for themselves!
In a recent conversation about the purchasing habits of local wine drinkers with Salt Lake City based attorney Tanner Lenart—a specialist in Utah liquor law compliance—DABC special orders and their “common pain points” came to the fore: one-case minimums, the absence of order-tracking and inadequate lines of communication, lead the list of grievances Lenart frequently hears from her clients. Fair enough. But as an ardent advocate of small winegrowers with a vested interest in Utah’s evolving fine wine market, I would argue that the very mechanisms designed to mitigate the flow of alcohol into the state also put untapped power and choice in the hands of discriminating wine lovers. Like any instrument, the DABC special order system requires fine-tuning and upgrades. However, only regular usage and familiarity with the online portal can realistically bring about tangible improvements. Here is a cause worth championing, if not for the access afforded to non-DABC-listed wines, at least as a form of enfranchisement enabling the trade and private customers alike to signal support (and demand) for lesser-known producers with the ultimate aim of encouraging the placement of specific wines in state liquor stores. Despite the shortcomings, this is a privilege—unique to Utah— which should not be taken for granted.
The landscape is in fact always shifting, as Utah’s new retail beer law SB132—which takes effect on November 1—will prove. “As the state will no longer carry anything under 5% ABV,” explains our legal expert, “there will be empty shelves formerly populated with 5% beer, meaning more space in every store without any construction taking place.” Does this mean wine buyers can begin feeling giddy as a result of the so-called Beer Amendments? Lenart sounds cautiously optimistic, noting “these additional areas must be filled, and I hope to see more and different products in that newly available shelf space.”
Reading between the lines, as Utahns are accustomed to doing, vacant shelves represent promise and potential—like a blank sheet of paper destined for prose. This is a new chapter waiting to be written. The time to speak up is now.
Stephanie Cuadra is the founder of Terrestoria Wine Imports.