Merry Edwards, one of the leading pinot nor and sauvignon blanc winemakers in the world, doesn’t sell her wine to retailers. You can buy it in a restaurant (mostly of the fine dining variety), or you can buy it directly from her, though there is a wait to get on her mailing list. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
Edwards has been doing this since her first vintage in 1997, and sees it as something completely logical for small wineries like hers, which make less than 10,000 cases a year. When Edwards was in Dallas, we talked about her distribution model (as the guys in suits call it), which is unusual. Most small wineries still want a distributor, who sells their wine to retailers.
This is called the three-tier system, and it is as controversial as it widespread. In most states, it's illegal for consumers to buy wine directly from the winery. You have to buy it from the retailer, who buys it from the distributor, who gets it from the winery. The three-tier system, which has been challenged in court, is left over from the repeal of Prohibition, when each state was given the authority to regulate alcohol sales as it saw fit.
Edwards mostly has to abide by the three-tier system, but she gets around it by having a distributor in each state. Yes, it's complicated, she says, but it's not as complicated as dealing with thousands of retailers.
In fact, it works so well for Edwards that she expects more wineries to do this as direct shipping laws become more liberal. “Retailers have retailers’ interests in mind,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But they aren’t necessarily my interests.”