Shipping battlefront shifts to retailers; Watch for new Riesling labels next spring

Three years ago, wineries won the legal right to direct ship wine to consumers nationwide. Last month, retailers nationwide won the right to ship to Michigan consumers – for about a week, that is, until the Detroit-area judge who granted them shipping rights stayed her own decision to allow Michigan officials time to appeal.

Defendants include the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers, who also opposed allowing wineries to direct ship in the 2005 case. Michigan's wineries have not taken an official position on this case through Wine Michigan, the political arm of their industry. But they don't see it as the logical extension of the right they won in 2005.

Industry concerns include the lack of a retail shipping license requirement (wineries pay a $100 license fee to direct ship), avoidance of state sales and excise taxes by out-of-state retailers, and underage consumption, said Wine Michigan president Mike Beck, of Uncle John's Fruit House Winery in St. John's.

"We want everyone held up to the same strict guidelines we're held up to, so it's a fair and level playing field," Beck said.

"I know there are some locally within our industry that are not in favor of this," said Adam Satchwell, winemaker at Shady Lane Cellars and president of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association. "Any time you open the pool you dilute it. So there's a certain amount of protectionism there."

Personally, Satchwell said he doesn't oppose the decision although "it's critical there's some oversight."

"Anything that gets wine into people's hands is a good thing," he said. "It may erode particular wineries positions a little bit. But if we're going to build a wine culture, we have to get wine in people's hands."

Ron White, owner of the Blue Goat wine shop in Traverse City, said he finds protectionist attitudes silly.

"I don't have any problem with retailers being able to ship in," he said. "If we want to be able to ship our wines out, we should expect others to be able to ship in."

If the defendants do appeal, the judge's 30-day stay will be in force until the appeals process runs its course.

Look for new labels on bottles of Michigan's most popular varietal, Riesling, starting next spring.

The International Riesling Foundation has approved a sweetness scale that wineries can use on their labels to help consumers better understand what's in the bottle they're buying.

"I think the scale is a very good one," said Sean O'Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, which produces some 50,000 cases of Riesling annually. He attended the Riesling Rendezvous in Washington state this past July, where much of the work on the scale was done.

Chateau Grand Traverse had already devised its own sweetness scale, which it used on its 2007 bottles, but will use the new scale on its 2008 vintage, O'Keefe said. It could mean re-categorizing some of its wines, too, from medium dry or semi-dry to medium sweet, per the formulas used in the new scale.

Black Star Farms winemaker Lee Lutes said he plans to use the new scale, as does Satchwell at Shady Lane, who thinks other Leelanau wineries will follow suit. "I would expect more people using it than not," he said.

While the "perception threshold" of sweetness will vary between individual consumers, the winemakers said the scale is still a solid step forward in marketing Riesling, which is striving to overcome an undeserved reputation for being "cloyingly sweet," as O'Keefe put it.

"This is still a good way to give people a quick snapshot of what's in the bottle," Satchwell said. "Is it perfect? No. Is it a whole lot better than what we had before? Absolutely. I think it serves its purpose well."

Correction: In last month's column it was incorrectly stated that the Political Winery initially ordered and sold 300 bottles. It was actually 300 cases.

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at www.michgrapevine.com. Send news and column ideas to her at cari@michgrapevine.com.

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