Last Friday, Brett Clifford cleaned out his desk and embarked on his retirement, a bit earlier, I suspect, than planned. Who is Brett Clifford, you might ask? Well, he's the one person most responsible for the fact that we can purchase excellent wine in Utah.
In past City Weekly articles, I referred to Mr. Clifford as Utah's "wine czar." As the UDABC's official wine taster - the only such government position in the United States, as both I andUSA Today have noted- Clifford created the fine-wine department at the DABC. And, as part of his 37-year tenure there, he tasted virtually all the premium wines that made their way into our state. His power was such that if he exercised it in New Jersey, for instance, he'd probably be living in an oceanside palace, purchased from kickbacks from booze merchants. But, Clifford was always squeaky clean, above-board, fair, honest, and incorruptible, even though he alone controlled which wines would be sold in Utah.
Perhaps that's too much power for one person, but we wine lovers were lucky because Clifford has a very discriminating palate. Thus, the fine wines that he brought to Utah were often the envy of wine geeks from elsewhere. I can't tell you how many times I brought friends from New York or California to our wine stores and saw them bowled over by the wine selection here. Oftentimes, you could get hard-to-find California wines, for example, that weren't even available in California -- all due to Brett Clifford.
And, so is the small-winery exemption that he created. Essentially, it means that we can buy wines from small production wineries that are often cheaper in Utah than, say, in California or Oregon, where many of them are made.
However, Clifford has suffered the indignities of working for a dysfunctional government bureaucracy, the UDABC. And, of late, he based most of his wine selections for our state on wine magazine ratings rather than personal tastings. I always wondered about -and feared - the day when Clifford would retire, because he has been a fairy godfather to wine lovers here for so damned long. Well, that day has come.
Clifford's resignation letter to UDABC Executive Director Francine Giani is a seething cauldron of bad Boone's Farm, and a cautionary tale of what is likely to happen to decent wine in the state of Utah following what he sees as a gutting of the DABC's fine wine program.
His resignation letter to Giani begins: "Your tenure as director has been negative in approach from the first day. You made it clear then to DABC staff that this agency has no support in the legislature or the governor's office, and that you did not want to be here. Contrary to your own claims of 'opening the windows and letting in the fresh air' at DABC, what followed was a series of secret interrogations, closed meetings, forced retirements, layoffs, and firings. For weeks we would come to work to see yet another missing employee, with no information about what happened or why. Your office is kept locked with closed blinds. We have been discouraged from attending or listening to commission meetings. The end result of this punitive administration is the lowest level of employee morale I have ever witnessed in thirty-seven years."
Clifford continues: "To be fair, you are obviously following marching orders from legislative leadership and the governor's office. Stung by the public and media backlash last year over the 1.2 million DABC budget shortage and proposed store closures, I believe you have been instructed to quietly cut that same amount out of the DABC office staff and to fundamentally alter the culture and direction of the agency. Your current mantra is 'we are leaner and more efficient;' a more accurate description would be inadequate, demoralized, and unprepared."
I asked a number of Utah wine brokers to comment on Brett Clifford and his effect on the wine scene in Utah. Many wouldn't speak on the record, probably afraid ofrepercussionsfrom the current or forthcoming DABC regime. However, Gus Magann of Vine Lore Inc. said of Clifford, "What amazed me the most over the years was his ability to remember his tasting impressions of past vintages for each specific wine. As a wine judge, I can honestly say he is the best taster I have ever known." Magann adds, "I look forward to seeing him about town, and finally being able to buy him a glass of wine."
Well, good luck with finding a decent glass of wine. As Clifford states in regard to the appointment of acting deputy director Tom Zdunich: "For me, the most significant recent directive is the intended downgrading of the DABC's fine wine program, something I have spent my entire career developing. Without any prior discussion, Mr. Zdunich informed me that the number of premium wines under my control would be reduced by two-thirds. Tom is determined to cut selection and move Utah state stores toward a grocery store model. Unless consumers and licensees are offered legal alternative choices of supply (such as winery-direct or internet sales) our state's business and image will suffer. Utah's world class resorts - barely able to compete in their beverage programs under current laws - will lose a critical component for business growth."
For both wine drinkers and non-drinkers, it's essential to understand that Utah - despite its image of being a place devoid of booze, never mind good booze - is, surprisingly, a haven for serious wine lovers. The wine stores here, despite all odds, have a world-class wine selection due, as I have said, largely to Brett Clifford and the fine wine program he instituted. The abandonment of that program will cause suffering - not just to wine lovers like me, but to restaurateurs, resort operators, bar owners, wine brokers, and everyone else whose livelihoods in this state are in some way related to the premium wines that are sold and consumed here.
As Libation, LLC's Francis Fecteau said to me about Clifford, "Simply put, he's created a system in Utah with one of the truly great wine selections available anywhere in the country. You think we would have the ultra-luxury resort development in Utah if they weren't confident that they'd be able to deliver the appropriate experience to a well-heeled clientele?"
Personally, I don't know how fine wines will be chosen for Utah's wine drinkers from here on out, but I fear the worst. It sounds like we're all going to be drinking mediocre vino soon.
Therefore, I hereby nominate myself to replace Mr. Clifford, although I would never dare to compare my palate or wine knowledge with his. I fear, though, that the next Utah wine czar, if there is one, will be a teetotaler or an unknowledgable number cruncher. I hope I'm wrong.
For now, I suggest we all raise a glass of our finest wines and toast Brett Clifford for the terrific job he has done for us, and for a happy, healthy future that I hope is filled with wonderful wines. He will be greatly missed.