The global wine industry is large. Really large. And as it has grown, it has become increasingly diverse in nature. Even for small wineries, international markets are now accessible. For wine producers from all countries, new markets are developing and exiting markets are expanding. Historically, we have mostly seen wine from the old-world appellations of Europe coming to the U.S. (now the largest wine consuming country on the planet) and other new-world markets. Now, though, we see the flow reversing, with wines made here in “the States” and in South America, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa showing up in the markets of Europe. Add in the growing demand from China and other parts of the Far East and Middle Eastern countries, and wines from pretty much everywhere are crisscrossing the globe.
With the global expansion, and in some regions the explosive growth, the industry continues to develop an ever-increasing number of roles and sub-industries that didn’t exist until recently. Here in North Idaho, most of the roles are pretty clearly defined by the liquor laws that govern our industry. The three-tier system of producers, distributors and retailers, which includes restaurants, are all separate entities. It is not legal in Idaho to be involved in more than one of these tiers.
Outside of Idaho the roles can become more blurred and there are many roles, both in Idaho and other places, that are less regulated and fill a number of needs for such a far-flung industry. It is now common for wineries, both domestic and international, to hire one of the many firms that specialize in marketing their wines in all of their non-local markets. In some cases, these marketing organizations own actual wineries themselves. In others, they strictly handle sales and marketing with no “skin in the game” of making wine. What they do have is tremendous expertise in the markets they function in, knowing how best to place a wine with the appropriate distributor. Scale, specialty and experience all play into these decisions, and the marketing companies know this part of the business well.
Brokers are yet another vital part of the industry as it has globalized. Like brokers in any industry- from stocks, to real estate, to wine — they never actually take possession or ownership of the wine. Instead, they facilitate deals between buyers and sellers. In this case, between the wineries which produce the wine and the distributors that sell it to the retailer. Like the marketing companies we mentioned above, brokers specialize in a geographic area or a particular size of winery. They know what is best for both of their customers: the distributors and the wineries.
Importers in every wine consuming country play a vital role. Most specialize in a specific country of wine origin, although in Europe you will see some that cover multiple countries. From arranging the transportation logistics, like filling containers and getting them on the ships, to knowing how to navigate the complicated import and export laws of many different countries, importers make the most complex part of the global wine business run smoothly. Do imports of wine still get delayed and mired in the arcane world of import laws? Sure, they do. But I can tell you, it’s amazing that this part of the wine business generally runs as smoothly as it does.
The wine press also plays a vital role in the ever-growing number of choices in wine, from an ever-growing number of winemakers. The job of the press is to not only figure out which wines merit attention, but also to describe wine in a way that allows consumers to know if it might be of interest. For consumers this can be a challenge. While some publications really strive to be neutral arbiters of the wines they taste, others are driven by advertising dollars. But even in the best of circumstances wine writers are human, with their own set of likes and dislikes. Tough to get around, even when striving for objectivity.
The business of wine will no doubt continue to grow, and with it, new roles will evolve to facilitate delivering the best wine to consumers.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.