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05.21.2009

A Game Changing New Marketplace for Wine

Did you feel that just now? It was the wine world shifting under your feet. As of this morning, the wine world is quite different, and will never be the same again.

Now, Robert Parker caught a lot of heat last year after jumping on his own bulletin boards one day and proclaiming that the next day, some news would break that would shake the foundations of the wine world. He was referring to the sale of Chateau Montelena to Cos d'Estournel, which not only was yawn-inducing for most everyone who heard the hyped-up announcement the day before, but ended up falling through anyway, to add insult to injury.

So I may be setting myself up for the same catcalls and jeers that accompanied Parker's non-news item, but I'm making the same fundamental claim. Today, the world, or more accurately, the market of fine wine has changed fundamentally with the announcement of the Vinfolio Marketplace.

And I should know, because I helped to design it.

The Vinfolio Marketplace is the next major release of functionality on the Vincellar platform that my company HYDRANT designed for Vinfolio, a wine retailer and services company here in San Francisco.

What started as the world's best (free) wine cellar management application, has now become the world's largest marketplace for person-to-person wine sales.

Here's how it works. If you use Vincellar to keep track of your wines, all you have to do is tick a little box saying "I'd be willing to sell this wine" and your wine will become instantly available to anyone in the world to come and make you an offer to buy it. You don't have to do a thing until someone makes you an offer you like, and then if you want to sell, you sell the wine to Vinfolio for cash, and Vinfolio turns around and sells it to your buyer at the price they bid for it.

Forget auctions, forget consignments, forget getting your wine appraised, or trying to sell your cellar to a broker. Just tick a couple of checkboxes, and wait for people to buy.

And if you're in the market for some fine wine, you get the benefits of deciding how much you want to pay for the wine (without any of those nasty 15% buyers premiums that you get stuck with at auctions), and Vinfolio's guarantee that the wine has passed their rigorous inspection requirements for quality.

For those of you who don't follow the secondary wine market, you may not realize that this is a fundamentally new way of selling and acquiring wine that will shake the fine wine auction market to its core. It won't mean the end of Sotheby's wine auctions to be sure, but it might just mean the not-so-slow death of services like WineBid and WineCommune, whose high fees and convoluted auction transactions mean that both buyers and sellers spend more time and money than they would like.

The launching of this new technology platform is only half the story, however. The ability for users of Vinfolio's Vincellar application to transact with other individuals for wine is game changing enough, to be sure. But even more impactful is the fact that in addition to Vincellar users, every single user of Cellartracker will also be able to make their wine available for sale in this marketplace.

I'll let that sink in a little.

In case you don't have the numbers ready to hand, here's what that means. It means that as of this morning, there is a brand new inventory of 12+ million bottles of wine, worth an estimated 2 biillion dollars, owned by more than 135,000 people, that can be bought and sold to each other as easily as a few mouse clicks.

And that, my friends, is a seriously big deal.

There are thousands of people who don't really consider themselves wine collectors but have managed to accumulate a lot of good wine over the years. A lot of it they don't want to drink, because they bought it when their tastes were different. Or they bought more than they really ended up wanting to drink. They'd love to sell it, but they don't have enough of it to be welcomed by the big auction houses, and putting it up for auction on one of those other sites is a royal pain. But if someone were to come along and offer a decent price for the wine in cash, they'd jump at the chance to get rid of those bottles and have some money to spend on the wine they really want to drink.

And for every one of those people, there are probably many more who are out there looking for a few bottles of well-aged wine but don't want to pay 15% buyers premiums, be forced to buy in quantities that don't make sense for them, and compete against other people in an escalating bidding war.

This is the beginning of a completely new way of moving wine around in the American marketplace that will completely change the current rules of supply and demand for collectible wines.

I enjoyed the process of designing the user interface for the software that will make all this happen. I think I'm going to enjoy watching the marketplace unfold even more.

Comments (36)

05.21.09 at 4:21 AM

Just what game does this change for those of us who live in states with wholesaler-purchased laws against retailer wine shipping?

05.21.09 at 8:27 AM

Alder, thanks for the wonderful comments and your role in making Marketplace a reality. The Marketplace combined with Cellartracker is intended to be a preemptive move on a large market opportunity. Only one small correction I would make to your comments: legally, the Marketplace IS considered an auction mechanism (albeit a different rule set than traditional ones)so wine transacting through the Marketplace is never "sold to Vinfolio" (i.e. we never take title to it).

Joel, unfortunately, direct shipping laws are not impacted by this. But, shipping alternatives (to the retailer arranging shipping) exist from others if one chooses to pursue them. E.g., see http://www.vinfolio.com/jsp/public/Shippingalternatives.jsp.

Jill wrote:
05.21.09 at 9:00 AM

Congrats on the new feature and your role in developing it, Alder.

I have a question that I think may fall on Steve to answer but I'll leave it up for grabs...

I heard that WineCommune was shut down by the California ABC for one month, in December, for allowing unlicensed persons to sell wine through its auction site. As a result, at least in the state of California, WineCommune (from what I understand) now requires all sellers posting wines for sale through them to submit a copy of their ABC license; I don't believe they require the same from out-of-state sellers, as the punitive action was from the California ABC and the agency only has jurisdiction over California.

Even the simple act of shipping a bottle of wine person-to-person (forget about selling) is not allowed by carriers such as FedEx or UPS, both of whom require one to be licensed by their local Alcohol bureau before bestowing one the right to ship wine through them (similar to WineCommune's new California requirements).

What I'm wondering is, aside from shipping complications noted by Joel Goldberg, how are person-to-person wine sales possible from a legal standpoint?

I would have assumed that Vinfolio, as the intermediary, WOULD take title and therefore would use its own licenses to help get around the simple fact that most individuals (and even most business entities) are not legally licensed to sell alcohol in what is a highly regulated market all over the United States. But Steve's statement above indicates otherwise -- that Vinfolio is not taking title. I'd love a little clarification.

I certainly think that it's useful for people to be able to make their wines available for sale more easily, but I would like to understand how it's legally possible.

05.21.09 at 11:36 AM

First of all, let me assure you that our alcohol attorneys, Hinman & Carmichael, have vetted the legality of our model. Here's my explanation of the confusion surrounding WineCommune's problem and why it doesn't apply to us:

My understanding of what got WineCommune in trouble is that it was acting as a peer-to-peer marketplace (like Ebay does in its typical categories). In this case, WineCommune was essentially permitting/facilitating mostly unlicensed parties to sell and ship directly to the general public (in an attempt to lower fees by avoiding handling costs). That is called being in the alcohol business and it requires a license for the seller.

Vinfolio, on the other hand, is pursuing a legal auction model under our retail license and CA bond, where we, as the “auctioneer”, are acting as an agent for the seller. No auction house (Winebid, Christies, Sothebys, etc.) ever takes title to the goods being auctioned. In our case, ALL wine ultimately goes through a licensed party (us) on its way to the buyer whereas NO wine passes through WineCommune on its way to the buyer (even today but since all sellers must be licensed, that is fine). Today, if you are a regular individual and wish to sell wine through WineCommune, they route you to WineCommune’s sister company, JJ Buckley (a licensed retailer), and JJ Buckley runs the WineCommune auction on your behalf (and for much higher fees – e.g., 17% for any bottle sold for $250 or less). See http://www.jjbuckley.com/sell. As a licensed WineCommune seller, they can directly ship to the buyer.

Does this help?

Jill wrote:
05.21.09 at 2:45 PM

Steve,

I had no doubt that you'd vetted this with your attorneys!

This explanation does help somewhat (especially as far as the WineCommune piece is concerned), though the differences between auction and peer-to-peer formats are still a little fuzzy to me--and perhaps open to interpretation.

I guess what I'm left wondering is--having recently read the VinTank Social Media Report--how your position as an Auctioneer is different from being a marketing agent.

One of the big points discussed in the opening pages of VinTank's report is the legality of wine marketing agents. The report ultimately warns that it's currently not legal (or most likely not legal) for "marketing agents" to take a percentage fee for aiding in the sale of alcohol; this report was referring to bloggers, as well as marketplace sites such as Snooth; but it seems to me that the auction format you describe has something in common with what sites like Snooth are doing on behalf of retailers (who do hold licenses). And while you hold a proper license, by not taking title to the wine, you are explicitly conducting transactions outside the scope of your license...meaning, that can't be the difference that provides you an allowance here.

I think it is one of your attorneys, in fact, John Hinman, who warns in the VinTank report against "revenue sharing." While he is speaking about bloggers or other entitiies piggy-backing on the licenses of retailers or wineries to sell wine, I wonder why it doesn't work the other way around? Either way, it seems to me like a revenue-sharing model.

Don't get me wrong. I would prefer a free market environment, and all power to you if you've found a way around some of these laws. It will only help the the whole wine-buying and -selling communities for all of us to have more flexibility in how wine is offered to the public outside of the traditional 3-tier system.

Jill

Jen wrote:
05.21.09 at 6:43 PM

I'd be curious to hear more about the "rigorous inspection requirements for quality." I've often wondered how one could buy wine from a private seller, auction or not, and have any guarantee of what was in the bottle. How do you know if it's been cellared correctly in the seller's home? Is it just "buy as is" and hope that what's in the bottle is what you expected?

Sounds fascinating and like a great opportunity for people to enjoy wine they way they would like to, not just by what's available in the stores.

Philip James wrote:
05.21.09 at 7:28 PM

How did I get dragged into this?

I would like to clarify. Snooth is not a marketplace - no one transacts on Snooth. We don't accept orders, transmit order data or deal with either the payment or the wine itself. We're a source of information only.

Jill wrote:
05.21.09 at 8:22 PM

Philip, Sorry for using the word "marketplace." I'm not sure what you prefer Snooth to be called.

And correct me again if any of the following is also inaccurate: while you don't do any of the things you mention above, you do in fact take a fee for each sale made via click-throughs to your partner merchants, and you give preferential placement within your site to those same partner merchants to encourage more click-throughs to their sites (as many as 20 times more than non-partner merchants).

While that may not be defined by you as a marketplace, it seems like more than just a source of information given that you're funneling people toward specific targets, and not just providing data.

Also, you do require partners to transmit order data back to you via tracking code, so that could muddy the waters (is receiving order data any different than transmitting order data?).

I'm not arguing that what Snooth offers isn't valuable to consumers or retailers. It could indeed be very valuable -- but after reading the VinTank Social Media Report, I see there could be some legal complications.

Alder wrote:
05.21.09 at 10:34 PM

Thanks for the comments.

The inspection requirements are for things like the fill level of the wine (how much may have evaporated) the condition of the capsule, any indications of leakage, pushed out corks, water damage on labels, condition of the label, cleanliness of the glass, all sorts of things like that are clues to how well a wine has been stored.

Of course, there are never any guarantees, but reputable companies will stand behind the wine, and if you buy a bottle and it's faulty, then they will take it back.

Philip James wrote:
05.22.09 at 5:10 AM

Jill, I don't want to steal Alder's thunder, so will make this my last response - always happy to answer any questions directly, or on another thread.

Vincellar is a marketplace in the truest sense - it facilitates peer to peer transactions. Its still wine, so Vinfolio use their license as an auction house to allow P2P sales to happen. Its a great move by Steve, and will be a huge boon to wine collectors around the country.

Snooth has nothing to do with this sort of model. The phrases marketplace, marketing agent, agent of this and that, advertising are used almost interchangeably which leads to a lot of confusion.

John Hinman, who represents Vinfolio, Vintank and many others has a great selection of articles on this page: http://www.beveragelaw.com/articles_publications.shtml. The 3rd from bottom, "Internet rules of the road" is the most interesting here. It points out the difference between an advertising company (eg. Snooth, which does not accept an order) and a marketing agent (eg. an unlicensed order taker that accepts the customer credit card data, then relays it to the licensed holder). It does not cover auction houses though.

Its key to note that this is all based on California law. Snooth operates out of New York, but works with a lot of companies in California as well as other states, so we have sought legal advice in many of the states we operate in, and are confident that we operate with no improprieties.

Back to the topic, it was mentioned above, but I thought the partnership with CellarTracker, announced just a day after the Marketplace announcement, was a fantastic addition. I don't know if any other company can claim to serve the collectors market like this.

Dylan wrote:
05.22.09 at 7:24 AM

Alder, the only reason I'd be yawning at this news is because it's still early in the morning. Congratulations on your involvement and the overall strategy to take these cellar management tools to the next level. This creates an uncontested service category where users can not only manage their cellar, but manage transactions of the wines in their cellar. It's the kind of next-step thinking that will have people who never considered buying and selling their collections through auction a viable option now. More than that, it means mailing lists may no longer be the limitation they once were. Due to the exclusivity of most lists, it's difficult to obtain certain wines and requires a long wait, but in this model it would allow the select few on those mailing lists to consider the option of resell.

05.22.09 at 9:42 AM

One last post on the topic of legal issues that have been raised. As I stated before, Vinfolio's Marketplace is a completely legal and proven auction model. Jill, unless you are an alcohol attorney, I'd recommend that you not make assertions about whether transactions we conduct are outside of our license (because we have been advised otherwise).

With regard to "marketing agents" and other models, according to John Hinman:

"The thing to keep in mind is that all wine in the Marketplace physically flows through Vinfolio (that is the key difference between the Marketplace and a peer-to-peer system, or a marketing agent system), and an auction is in reality just a set of mechanisms (legal under California law) to set prices that are acceptable to a seller."

For more questions on marketing agents, my recommendation is hire John Hinman or start a thread on a wine industry bulletin board like the Open Wine Consortium and thrash it out.

On a different topic of inspection guidelines than Jen asked about, they are posted on our site under Customer Service: http://www.vinfolio.com/customerService-inspection-guidelines.jsp.

With regard to the terms and conditions relating to transactions in the Marketplace, I'd refer people to Vinfolio’s terms and conditions (http://www.vinfolio.com/jsp/company/terms.jsp) which has a section pertaining to the Marketplace. These terms may evolve a bit between now and the commencement of bidding in early July but they provide some further insights into how the Marketplace will function. We’ll also be adding additional marketing pages to our site between now and July to explain bidding and selling processes in more detail.

Jill wrote:
05.22.09 at 10:05 AM

Steve,

I am not an attorney, which is exactly why I have questions -- I want to understand how this works, and have the people who are better informed than I am explain to me the areas that I don't fully understand. This is why I posed these questions here: not as any sort of confrontation to you or claim that what you're doing is illegal, but so that you could explain to me how it is!

In order to frame my questions, I need to make certain assumptions or statements as to the way I currently understand things, and then have them clarified by either you, Alder, Hinman or otherwise. That is all I have been seeking: clarification.

I don't think it's inappropriate to have this dialogue publicly, or on a blog thread announcing a "game changing" new marketplace.

I apologize if I somehow have upset you, but Alder can attest to the fact that I am intrigued by and supportive of the developments and innovations that have been announced here.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to understand how they are in fact legal and possible given the arcane state of alcohol regulation, and I think raising these questions here is entirely appropriate.

Phil wrote:
05.22.09 at 10:28 AM

I would say that calling this a "game changer" for the "wine world" is actually more loaded with hyperbole than Parker's comment. It certainly is an interesting development for the very small minority of consumers that purchase wine on the secondary market, and couldn't be launched at a more dismal time for wine collectors to be selling.

3.6 billion bottles sell in the primary/retail US wine market, and probably .0001% of that change hands in the secondary market. This isn't a "game changer" for anyone but the the few hundred people who are tired of being ripped off by the fees that WineBid.com charges. A better term would be this announcement is a "nuance to a niche".

05.22.09 at 10:48 AM

As this thread demonstrates to me, we (Vinfolio) have to do a better job communicating and we'll make every effort to do so between now and early July when the Marketplace launches. And I am not trying to "shut down" people from asking questions and clarifications.

Perhaps I would have reacted differently had your comment below been phrased as a question as opposed to a declaration: "And while you hold a proper license, by not taking title to the wine, you are explicitly conducting transactions outside the scope of your license...meaning, that can't be the difference that provides you an allowance here."

In any case, thanks for your further comments and I apologize for my strongly worded statement.


Alder wrote:
05.22.09 at 10:49 AM

Phil,

You may be right. However using the current scope of secondary wine sales as a measure of their importance is like saying there's no demand for space tourism because only about 4 people a year who aren't professional astronauts go to space.

The means to easily sell wine on the secondary market frankly just don't exist. The marketplace bets that a lot more people would sell wine to individuals if it were easier for them and done in a way that was trustworthy, dependable, and backed by guarantees so everyone was taken care of.

While the wine world is a big place to be sure, and the folks who make up most of the population of wine consumers won't even hear about this, this is a pretty major change to the status quo. The real ramifications remain to be seen, of course, so my proclamation is, of course, my opinion. And as the guy responsible for designing the user experience for this new marketplace, I've obviously got a horse in the race, too.

But I'm also a commentator on the world of wine, and in my assessment this is a major development. Which is why wine lovers on all the major wine bulletin boards are talking about it, and why you will doubtless see some national news coverage about this (probably in the business papers like WSJ, etc).

05.22.09 at 11:06 AM

Phil, the traditional wine auction market (all secondary) is about $300 million annually but this really only measures the "tip of the iceberg" in the sense that most major auction houses target selling fairly expensive bottles only. There's also a lot of wine sold back to or through retailers which is hard to measure but it was about $15mm of our 2008 revenues alone (as an example).

The "game changer" aspect here is the high potential for expanding the existing secondary market size greatly through a much easier process for participating in it (and on a much more cost effective basis). Moreover, remember, the Marketplace is open to the trade as well for both new releases and library wines at what amounts to a "channel cost" of only 15%. Every winery or importer I have spoken to wants to use it.

Wine Piper wrote:
05.22.09 at 12:48 PM

Oh the wicked web we weave
When we opt to buy and receive
Wine of any kind
Without the thought that comes to mind
That there are those out to deceive
And prey upon those that believe
Sorry I'm out of rhyming juice, it was going pretty well there. Anyways my only comment is buyer be aware. And those of you who truely care about wine shipments not being allowed into your particular state should join Free The Grapes and get involved, put pressure on you state representatives. The governent hates competition

Phil wrote:
05.22.09 at 1:06 PM

With all due respect to Steve and Alder, I think your vested interests are making you have trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

I do acknowledge Steve's point, I was wrong - secondary sales are about .016% of the market, not .0001%. Still miniscule by anyone's standards.

As to Steve's point about wineries and importers using the system, well that's possible, but I there are a lot of avenues out there for suppliers and I think they will continue to explore the cheapest option for delivering direct sales. If 15% is the cheapest right and best now, you will be undercut in the near future. I've seen a contract that Amazon and NVL gave out and it looked pretty good to me...

That said, I hope your model succeeds and brings new consumers to the marketplace. The proof will be in the pudding when we see how many importers and wineries actually use the system, because IMO, that's the only potential 'game changer' here.

Chris Lopez wrote:
05.22.09 at 3:11 PM

Alder,
This is awesome. I read the email from Cellartracker about this about an hour ago and i am stoked. I am even more excited that you will have a hand in it. Thank you!

Tish wrote:
05.25.09 at 6:55 AM

Very impressed, Alder. Knowing that you and Hinman & Carmichael are involved gives me confidence that this really is a "killer app." Both leagl and worthwhile. A 21st century, cyber-based solution to a problem that has tangled up wine since Prohibition. And maybe this is a crack in the armor that will lead to updating direct shipping legislation, which is looking more dinosaurish than ever.

05.25.09 at 9:03 AM

Congrats, Alder!

Paige wrote:
05.25.09 at 3:45 PM

What fee will Vinfolio be charging as auctioneer/facilitator for person to person transactions? Or is this free to existing customers of Vinfolio?

Eric Orange wrote:
05.26.09 at 7:16 AM

I'm curious on this,
"The thing to keep in mind is that all wine in the Marketplace physically flows through Vinfolio"

Do you mean that literally? If Person “A “ indicates they will sell a bottle of Freemark Abbey Bosche and Person “B” offers a good price, is person “A” sending you, Vinfolio, the bottle?
Really sending it and not a paper trail?
Unless things have changed, there are some states that require the wine to be physically brought into the bonded warehouse. Not "dock touch" or paper trail, but inside the building.
However, having said that, it's my opinion that very few states are making efforts to follow strict letter of the law these days when it comes to small shipments of wine. Whether marked as alcohol or not, whether allowed/accepted by UPS and Fedex or not, the legal waters are so murky across the country that most state ABC’s do not have the means to chase sporadic small packages of wine across their borders. Perhaps some do, but I haven't heard tell of any busts for a few bottles of wine sent between individuals. Staged stings by the WSWA, yes, but not concentrated efforts toward individuals or wine clubs even. Here in Pennsylvania, the PLCB stated at one point that they are not enforcing the statutes until legislators had adjusted the laws to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
Certainly if someone is making a business of shipping wine and it rises to the level of more than a few bottles now and then, the risk are there, but…
It would seem to me that it’s a Catch 22. In order to gain critical mass, a business needs to make a lot of PR noise, but doing so risks the attention of the WSWA (with over sixty years of political contributions to state legislators and desperate to save that tiny slice of business. Oh wait; it’s the children buying wine online they are concerned about, no?
Personally, I believe the whole internet/wine/shipping hoopla is a non-issue. Shipping wine across states lines within the 3 tier system creates legal and logistical costs that make it nearly impossible to be profitable. Trying to comply is what sunk WineShopper.com nearly ten years ago. It sunk The Wine Society of America fifteen years before that. It’s no secret that Wine.com has been hanging by a thread from Virtual Vineyard, through eVineyards and today.
As one who buys and drinks more wine than most, I’m not buying anything online. I live in the single biggest “control” state in the country and though the selection is not great (more or less what you would expect from a civil service operation, to say nothing of the customer service in the shops), I still do not buy online. With uncertainty of the wine’s storage history, the risks of temperature damage during shipment and the cost of delivery, I just don’t see it as ever becoming a major factor in the wine business. Some, but not major.
Just my opinion of course. I’ve been wrong before.
Anyway, best of luck. I will be checking it out to see if I can land something.

Alder wrote:
05.26.09 at 3:03 PM

Paige,

I believe Vinfolio will charge between 12% and 20% depending on the volume and price of wine sold.

Jack Everitt wrote:
05.27.09 at 8:02 PM

Alder, you say, "there are probably many more who are out there looking for a few bottles of well-aged wine but don't want to pay 15% buyers premiums," and also, "I believe Vinfolio will charge between 12% and 20% depending on the volume and price of wine sold."

I kind of suspect those buying "a few bottles" will be at the high end of that range, not the low range.

Overall, this is a very cool addition to the world of US wine, where we have to deal with the incredibly stupid/insane/inane 50-state's different shipping laws. Hopefully, this ends up working out well for Vinfolio and CellarTracker's customers.

Alder wrote:
05.27.09 at 8:11 PM

Jack,

The seller pays the fee, the buyer pays only the sellers asking price.

05.27.09 at 10:55 PM

Per Eric Orange's comment, "yes", all wine must physically pass through Vinfolio, not a paper trail. Unlicensed individuals are not legally allowed to sell wine to other individuals or to ship wine. While I'm sure it happens, one cannot base a business model on it.

Fees are 15% if the wine is being sold while in Vinfolio storage and 20% if the wine is not in Vinfolio storage (which could mean anywhere in the country or across the street from our warehouse in someone's apartment). There will also be some cumulative discounts at various thresholds (we're still discussing) which would lower these fees further by up to 10% (so to 13.5% in lowest case or 18% if all wine were remote when sold).

I realize that the processes are of interest to people and we'll be updating our site soon to be make the steps clearer.

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Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.