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Idealism on Hanover St.

Posted by Stephen Meuse  November 29, 2011 12:02 PM

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The clever illustration at left is the graphic the crew at The Wine Bottega is using to brand its "Farm to Glass" program, inaugurated earlier this year. Sign up (details here) and you'll  receive a set number of bottles each month chosen by the staff at this charming mouse-hole of a wine shop in Boston's North End. The scheme mimics the newly popular community-supported agriculture - CSA - model. Popular perhaps because participation in a CSA is as close as most of us are likely to get to the source of our vegetable food, without actually getting dirt under the fingernails.

The CSA model has proven benefits for farmers, since subscriptions paid in advance of the growing season provide agriculturalists with a source of interest-free working capital now and a reliable outlet for their produce later. It works for fishermen too -- the seagoing version is a  CSF (community-supported fishery).  

It seems to be a winning formula all around, so long as consumers agree to tolerate the limitations it necessarily imposes on what's for supper tonight (How do I love thee, heirloom rutabaga? Let me count the ways).  

Of course the Wine Bottega's effort, interesting and appealing as it is, doesn't directly address any of these pain points. You can't just take up the CSA model, replace the farmers and fishermen with vintners, and rock on. This is because laws regulating the sale of alcohol put into place here in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition were intended to keep wine producers and wine consumers as far apart as possible.  

In short, it's not only illegal for consumers to buy directly from producers (I note the exceptions below), it's also illegal for retailers to purchase directly from producers.  In the three-tier system established by statute in the commonwealth, a distributor must intervene in any commercial exchange between a producer and a retailer. In the same way, a retailer must mediate the relationship between a distributor and any consumer.

The single exception to this is provided by farm winery legislation enacted here by which the state's wineries are permitted direct-to-consumer sales either on their property or now, as recently amended, at designated farmers' markets.

If organizations such as Free the Grapes  and groups aligned with them have their way, it will one day be possible for consumers to deal directly with vintners. It might then be possible for something to emerge that could call itself community-supported viticulture without its nose growing just a little bit upon the telling.

What would it mean for small-scale vintners (local and otherwise) to have direct access to capital provided by consumers happy to participate in the life and work of people whose output they appreciate and enjoy?  It could well mean the difference between updating cellar equipment, replanting aging vineyards, buying a bottling line - and standing pat. Right now, unless some way could be found to mix wholesalers into the scheme - fat chance of that - it's all illegal.  

Things may change. Or not.  Meanwhile, kudos to the The Wee Wine Bottega.  Despite the fact that (a) what they have created isn't really anything more than a wine club ventriloquizing a CSA; (b) that there are no shares involved and (c) no capital is flowing directly to the small-scale vintners who need it, credit this smart, feisty group with undertaking something theologians call realized eschatology: Essentially, behaving as if the Kingdom of God has arrived, even if it hasn't . . . and likely never will.        

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at


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