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Why do NYC liquor stores ignore NYS wines? A case to be made

Aerial view of Suffolk County wine country.
Aerial view of Suffolk County wine country.
LI Wine Country photo.

In a recent posting, I mentioned the oddity of a Capital Region restaurant featuring New York wines for a special charity fundraising. After all, I noted, a common complaint is that restaurants and taverns in that area have never readily climbed on the state wine bandwagon except for a few scattered spots such as The Wine Seller at the Harmony House Marketplace in Cohoes, Albany County, that sells only New York wines.

The problem, however, certainly is not limited to the Capital Region. New York City has been a particular example of non-NY interest. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, on Friday related an anecdote that gave him a perfect jumping-off spot for one of his patented "Mom always liked you best" tirades.

" 'Why don't New York liquor stores carry New York wines?' That question," said Trezise, "came this week from a state government employee who works in New York City, is tasked with helping the New York wine industry because Governor Andrew Cuomo recognizes it as a strategic industry for the state, and enjoys wine himself. He came for a meeting in the Finger Lakes, which he had never seen before -- he's from the South Bronx -- and soon will be bringing his girlfriend back to show her the incredible beauty which he discovered. He was late for our meeting because he stopped to take pictures, but I digress."

Trezise's laundry list of reasons New York wines are under-appreciated in their own state includes some obvious and some not-so-obvious items. Here are the major ones he cites:

"New York City is the most competitive wine market in the world, and the port of entry for most wines from the world entering the United States. New York wines get absolutely no break and, in fact, are subject to 'reverse discrimination' -- if it's local, it can't be good. There is virtually no regional loyalty in NYC, though that is starting to change, especially in Brooklyn.

"With the exception of Long Island wineries, for whom New York City is the nearest major market, most New York wineries have not invested much time, money, or energy in what is also the most costly market in the world relative to getting established. It is much less expensive to establish accounts in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and elsewhere upstate, where there also are fewer wine snobs.

"Prices of foreign wines, especially from South America, are ridiculously low, mostly because of vineyard labor costs that are only dollars per day, compounded by government subsidies which also lower prices. This makes New York wines look expensive. New York City wine retailers look to their bottom line, which means what they can buy for the least and sell for the most. Those never are New York wines, but usually wines from South America or other foreign countries."

It is difficult to argue with most of his talking points, except when it comes to price. It is too easy to go to the well time after time when discussing foreign vs. domestic products and cite low wages for foreign workers helping keep down prices. There are a few decent New York wines sold at reasonable retail prices, but the vast majority started at high pricing levels and thus became forever branded as overpriced, often rightly so. That is something wineries need to address, even if individually rather than as some industrywide push that might be labeled price fixing. Who will be among the first to blink?

Then, Trezise takes a swipe at what he characterizes as "most" New York City liquor store owners, who he claims "know very little about wine in general other than profit margins, and even less if anything about New York wines. Every time I'm in New York City I visit 10 or so stores to see how many New York wines they carry -- usually zero; where they are placed -- bottom shelf, back row; how they are priced, and if they are recommended by the staff or owner -- virtually never.

Trezise spends most of his waking hours working with vineyard and winery owners to help expand the case on New York wines, as well as lobbying state regulators and wooing out-of-state and foreign wine opinion-makers on behalf of the state he represents. He's been doing it for decades, so his opinion carries a of of weight along with what obviously is a lot of frustration.

"There's a huge, multi-faceted challenge getting New York wines into New York City. It's not that way for Napa Valley wines in San Francisco, Washington wines in Seattle, or Oregon wines in Portland. But New York is ... well, New York," he says. "Which is precisely why we created our NY Drinks NY program, now in its third phase, with a fourth to follow soon and seamlessly.

"With grants from the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority supported by the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, we have been working with First Press Public Relations in Manhattan to change all this through a coordinated, ongoing 'exchange program' -- bringing New York City sommeliers, wine store managers, and writers to the regions, and then taking winery owners and marketers into New York City, all to educate everyone about everyone, create networks, and change the dynamic."