Monday, February 10, 2014

Rant: Banned In Boston

In the late 19th century, the phrase "banned in Boston" started to take hold, usually referring to movies, books and plays that got banned because they were thought to be immoral, salacious or offensive. It use continued into the 20th century and now in the 21st century, another would-be exhibitor has been banned in Boston, because they were found to be offensive to the organizers of a large-scale wine event.

This weekend, the Boston Wine Expo comes to town and thousands of consumers will descend on the Seaport World Trade Center, taking the opportunity to sample from more than a thousand wines or attend one of the more than 40 seminars. Besides all of the wine tables, there will be exhibitors showcasing food, magazines, financial services, travel and more. However, though they wanted to exhibit, you won't find the American Wine Consumer’s Coalition (AWCC) at this year's Expo. They were "banned in Boston."

This banning recently came to light in the Wine Industry Insight, in the article Boston Wine Expo Bans Direct-To-Consumer Exhibitors by Lewis Perdue. Mr. Perdue was informed by Tom Wark, Executive Director of the AWCC, that they had tried to obtain a booth at the Expo but were denied because of their support of direct wine shipping in Massachusetts. As I mentioned previously, a law which barred out of state winery shipments to Massachusetts consumers was ruled unconstitutional. Since that ruling, there have been several efforts to create a legal framework allowing such winery shipments, though nothing has yet succeeded.

Most recently, the proposed legal framework is House Bill 294, authored by Representative Theodore Speliotis. A public hearing, with much positive support, was heard on this bill in November 2013 but it is currently in limbo, awaiting a vote. Free The Grapes is pushing for such a vote and you can check out how to help in that regard. The AWCC has been supportive of this bill, and wanted to use the opportunity of the Boston Wine Expo to explain to the consumer attendees about the importance of the bill and why they should support Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) sales.

Mr. Perdue followed up with James Carmody, the President of the Boston Guild of Oenophilists, which organizes and operates the Boston Wine Expo, to discuss the banning of the AWCC. Mr. Carmody stated that wholesalers and distributors have been the "foundation of the show." Thus, there business interests are important to the Expo. Mr. Carmody also noted that the Board has decided not to allow direct shippers to exhibit, and this also apparently now extends to any organization which promotes the idea of DTC sales.

In some respects, this is surprising as Free The Grapes has been an exhibitor in prior years, including last year, and they have long promoted DTC sales. So it appears that a blanket prohibition on exhibitors promoting DTC sales is something new this year. Why is this year different? Free The Grapes has stated that they didn't plan on attending the Expo this year. If they had tried to become an exhibitor this year, would they have been refused too? The Expo website does not provide any rules or restrictions as to who can exhibit at the Expo, so would-be exhibitors have little information as to what is potentially prohibited.

In other respects, this is not surprising. Last year, I met James Carmody at a Expo preview event and he summed up, with much candor, the primary purpose of the Expo: commerce. It is primarily about wineries finding local distributors, distributors finding retailers and restaurants, and wineries trying to raise their brand recognition with consumer. Nearly everyone showcasing their products at the Expo is seeking to make money, to expand their business. On the Expo website, under "Why Exhibit," it states: "The Show has been transformed into a major "selling event" for wineries with distribution in Massachusetts." That seems to make the focus of the Expo more clear.

Besides this emphasis on business, the Expo is also a consumer event, at least in part. As their website states, "The Boston Wine Expo is the largest trade and consumer wine event in the country." However, it needs to be understood that the business needs and desires of the Expo generally take precedence over consumer issues, and definitely on the DTC sales issue. Wholesalers and distributors are the primary opposition to House Bill 294, believing it threatens their profits. As they are integral to the prosperity of the Expo, the Board does not want to alienate them by allowing exhibitors to promote DTC sales.

The Boston Guild Of Oenophilists Inc. is organized as a Domestic Profit Corporation, though they have also contributed over $1 Million to numerous charities. The corporation has a President, Treasurer, Secretary, CEO, CFO and 16 Directors. Some of those Directors work for wholesalers and distributors, so it is understandable why they would be opposed to DTC sales. This concern about DTC sales, leading to a ban this year on those supporting such sales, may have arisen because of the looming presence of House Bill 294. It may be seen as an imminent threat, and the wholesalers and distributors do not want anyone promoting that bill at the Expo.

Interestingly, Free the Grapes notes that "...a December 2012 report by the Maryland Comptroller noted that wholesale-to-retail sales actually increased 3.6% the year following implementation of direct shipping in that state." This seems to indicate that the fears of Massachusetts wholesalers and distributors is largely unfounded. Proponents of DTC sales, such as the AWCC, have also provided many convincing arguments in support of DTC sales. The arguments against DTC sales have been far weaker and less convincing. At the base, it is primarily about fear, fear of lost profits.

When you delve back into the origins of the Boston Wine Expo, the seeds of its inspiration actually supported "direct access to the wines' producers." The founder, François-Laurent Nivaud, found the basis for his idea for the Boston Wine Expo in the French wine shows, Le Concours, and those French shows actually wanted people to have direct access to the producers. Currently, Le Concours has a web-based sales channel for online sales of its wines. Why can't the Boston Wine Expo emulate these aspects as well, supporting DTC sales?

It is inevitable that DTC sales will come to Massachusetts. It is only a matter of time, and with House Bill 294, it could be here sooner than later. There is a growing surge across the entire country supporting DTC sales and wholesalers and distributors are trying to hold back a tidal wave with paper walls. Rather than fear it, wholesalers and distributors need to learn how to co-exist with it. The presence of Free The Grapes at prior Expos did not cause any harm, so why start now to ban organizations like AWCC from promoting the cause of DTC sales? Will such a prohibition really stop DTC sales from coming to Massachusetts. Extremely doubtful.

The Boston Wine Expo has prided itself on change, trying to make the event better and more relevant each year. For example, within the last couple years, the Expo has embraced social media and blogging, which has been a positive addition. However, banning promoters of DTC sales is a step backwards. It is a denial of the inevitable future of wine sales. It does a disservice to the consumers attending the event. And it needs to change.