Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

(Originally published November 2008)

Let it never be said that old dogs cannot learn new tricks. After having spent his entire wine industry career in the State of New York, Hanes has learned that things are not done quite the same elsewhere. And, boy, has it been fun learning! Why, what kind of fun? Glad you asked!

The big foundational difference is that North Carolina, where Hanes now resides, regulates the sale of alcohol itself, that is, they sell the hard stuff themselves. Per the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission website, “North Carolina is one of 19 control states and a member of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. As an agency under the Department of Commerce, it is our overall objective to provide uniform control over the sale, purchase, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession of alcoholic beverages in the state.” Practically speaking, this means that all hard alcohol (“spirituous liquor”) is sold solely through ABC state stores. Wine and beer can be sold through grocery stores or privately held retail operations.

This is the direct opposite of how things are done in New York State, where wine stores can sell hard alcohol products but not beer (only grocery stores, delis, etc. can sell beer, but not wine nor hard alcohol). The upshot being for Hanes, any knowledge gained over the years about “spirituous liquor” (a true bible belt phrase) is out the window and pretty much worthless in the workplace. This vodka or that, which Orkney Island scotch is the best, try this small batch tequila, fuhgeddaboutit. You can erase that from the hard drive.

On the other hand, Hanes currently needs to be a beer expert. Now, Hanes has certainly consumed more than his fair share of beer since, say, the age of 13. But beer has always been a friendly consumable and not something to fetishize. Beer like Newcastle, Boddingtons, Stella Artois, Negra Modelo were as exotic as it gets. Because Hanes’s boss is more interested in wine, Hanes has now taken over the day-to-day management of the beer section. Charlotte is supposed to be a big “beer town” so the challenge has been to address the existing brand stock, analyze pricing versus the competition and adjust product and prices to retain and grow market share. You hear that, Brawley’s and Common Market? Hanes is going to slap you and take your lunch money!

There’s a lot to learn about beer. Hanes is currently drinking a lot more beer than wine. Burp. Beer is, on the whole, not as inherently complex as wine. But beer lovers are equally ardent and one needs familiarity with the product and be able to “talk the talk.” Hanes is getting there and the beer tasting note database already has 38 entries in it. Yeehaw. Only 11,418 more and it will be caught up with the wine database. All in all, it is fun to learn about beer and Hanes is certain this will help him immensely with the chicks. Hopefully not the chicks with beer guts.

Beyond the beer versus hard stuff angle, there’s a lot in the wine world that’s different too. Sure, it’s the same national “three tier” system of wholesaler – retailer – end consumer. Consumers can’t buy directly from wholesalers and retailers cannot directly import wines from out of state. But after that, the similarities to New York break down some.

First, North Carolina is a “bottle state” which means it is perfectly fine and legit to order wine from wholesalers by the bottle. If you do not order a full case of a particular wine there is no financial penalty levied. As a result, as long as the total order meets the wholesaler’s minimum dollar amount for delivery (very low in these parts), you can order three bottles of Wine X, one bottle of Wine Y, five bottles of Wine Z, and so on. This has many effects.

First, it makes checking in deliveries a pain in the ass! It’s easy to count cases when they come in, takes two seconds. When you have to check each bottle it takes much longer. Remember, the Cabernet label may look exactly like the Merlot so you have to really inspect the bottles upon receipt. Second, it makes stocking and knowing what stock you have on hand harder. Hanes’s store doesn’t have the vertical racks which showcases one bottle on top of a column with eleven bottle slots below for the rest of the case. Instead, it’s deep cross-hatched shelves with one bottle of each type standing upwards in front. You can’t see what you have back in the cubby holes unless you memorize what the capsules look like. So, when a customer comes in to make a purchase and wants four bottles it is not visibly clear if you have four bottles on hand. You have to hunt and peck behind the facing bottles to see if the quantity desired is there or not. 99% of the time it is not. Which means you need to special order four bottles or find another wine in the store with that quantity on hand. Which is not very likely either, unless it is a case stacked wine. Which at times frustrates the customer and loses sales. Which… Never mind that buying by the bottle loses the retailer any case quantity discounts available (raising the price to the end consumer). In many ways it is a demand issue, there just is not sufficient customer demand to stock cases of a specific wine on hand. Especially at a true wine retail store because it seems most “bulk” wines purchases (defined here as four bottles or more of the same wine) is done at large grocery store chains such as Food Lion or Harris-Teeter. Hell, even Lowes and Target have grocery stores here!

The ambiguity regarding how much of any wine is actually in stock is compounded by something commonly accepted here but foreign to Hanes’s experience up north. Here, wholesaler representatives put together the orders and, further, actually stock the shelves themselves. Sure, the retail wine buyer approves the order but it’s not like the buyer calls the distributor and says send me this and that. The rep comes into the store and writes up what s/he thinks is needed and asks the buyer if it’s OK. This usually gets rubber stamped. Then, the next day when the wine shows up, the sales rep returns to the store and puts price stickers on the bottles and physically puts them on the shelves.

This is all done as a matter of course and Hanes believes this is pretty much the case in all wine stores/groceries, not just where Hanes works. This entirely and completely weirds out Hanes. Hell, in New York Hanes suspects it might even be illegal for sales reps to stock shelves. Outside of a few emergency instances, he never saw wholesaler personnel working in a retail store as if employed there. Even when they pour free samples for customers they identify themselves as wholesalers and not store employees per se. Sure, Hanes is a total control freak but it seems that here it’s the inmates running the asylum. They do the ordering and the stocking, where’s the managerial controls? You never know exactly where the reps put the bottles, and the reps don’t know if you moved some of their wine around in the back stock room. All but total disconnect and quite inefficient. But stores here seem to like it because it saves on employee costs, no stocking means no stock personnel needed. Hanes guesses that’s the rationale. It’s just plain messed up.

One thing that is cool here is that all deliveries of alcohol have to be paid for upon receipt. No running a tab with the wholesaler nor 30-day float. If you ain’t got the money, you ain’t got the hootch. This separates the mice from the men [sic] and makes sure a retailer doesn’t stupidly run their business by ordering more than they can afford (they can, of course, run their business stupidly in other ways). No punishment for not paying bills on time by being put on COD, it’s always COD. This strikes Hanes as the best, fairest way to go. Especially for startup businesses which always insufficiently understand how much capital is needed to get a wine store off the ground.

The State of North Carolina doles out sales rights to any specific wine by county. These rights are exclusive for the county. So, for example, if you have the wholesale rights to all Gallo wines in Mecklenburg county, no one else can sell them at wholesale. Hanes doesn’t think exclusivity rights are state-mandated in New York, often just agreed to contractually between a certain producer and wholesaler (and he has seen multiple wholesalers selling the same wine). From a capitalist vantage point, this is bad as it restricts competition. From a practical vantage point, though, it makes it a bit easier to find the wine. That is, unless one tries to actually use the North Carolina ABC website, which has a producer search function any seven year old computer programmer could beat. Plus, it appears no one like updates the information and many producers are listed with wholesalers which haven’t sold the product in years. Sigh.

One of Hanes’s pet peeves is that it is perfectly legal for a retail wine store to also have a full service wine/beer bar on the premises. This is strictly forbidden in New York, two completely different sort of licenses. There’s nothing wrong with this combination per se. It’s more that the way wine stores operate, watching the wine bar and its customers makes it very difficult to do any other sort of meaningful work around the shop. You can’t be in the back room organizing shit, you can’t be trying to make sense of the stock on the shelves, you can’t work on the computer, you are basically a bartender after 5:00 PM until closing. Serving glasses, getting tabs paid, washing glasses, chatting up the clientele. Over time, from the perspective of running a highly organized wine store, that’s a lot of lost productivity. And it’s highly doubtful that the wine bar revenue offsets these inefficiencies. But, outside of big grocery stores, every wine store here has a wine bar, as if mandated by law.

The only other major difference is that the local clientele is not very sophisticated versus wine buyers in Manhattan. Big duh there, to be expected, but still. Domestic wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, rule by a very wide margin. There’s some cool, funky wines available (and at all price points) but they are entirely “hand sells” and no one is just buying Gavi di Gavi nor Bandol wines just by themselves. If you get a few inquisitive souls, it is fun to get folks interested in more “esoteric” wines but Hanes has not yet seen much adventuresomeness. So, it is harder to get jazzed up to help customers when they just want to buy wines Hanes has no real interest in. Playing the role of proselytizer gets stale after awhile and really doesn’t translate into more substantive remuneration pour moi. But, hey, it’s a gig and the way the economy is these days, Hanes happily gives thanks. And drinks the Cru Beaujolais alone at home!