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wine and health

Ask the WC 14: The wine availability edition

wine availablityThis edition of Ask the WC: Wine availability, and why can’t I buy what you’re writing about?

Because the customers always have questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. This time, I answer the dozens of recent comments and emails from readers about wine availability, which has apparently been driving everyone crazy. You can Ask the Wine Curmudgeon a wine-related question by clicking here.

Hello, Wine Curmudgeon:
I love your blog, and you make me laugh. But I can’t always find the wine you recommend. Is that me? Or am I missing something?
Can’t find the wine

Dear Can’t:
It’s not you. It’s not even me, despite what some readers think. It’s the way wine is sold in the U.S. Every wine on a store shelf has to have a distributor. The retailer, no matter how large – even as big as Costco – can’t buy wine directly from the producer. That’s the law (and our old pal), the three-tier system. Some wines, for whatever reason, won’t have a distributor in all 50 states. I try to review wines that should be available in a quality independent retailer in a mid-sized city. My only other choice is to do Big Wine products, which are available in most places, but what’s the point of that?

Dear WC:
I’m getting annoyed going to my local supermarket and not being able to find the wines you write about. It happens all the time. Why don’t you write about wines I can buy there?
Tired of the hassle

Dear Tired:
It’s not my fault. Honest. It’s the three-tier system, because you can’t buy wine like you can buy ketchup and laundry detergent. Grocers, for a variety of reasons, usually carry different wines than the ones I review. It doesn’t mean you can’t find the wines I recommend in supermarkets. It’s just less likely, and why I suggest looking for a quality independent retailer.

Hey WC:
I really like a nice glass of rose. I lived in the New York City area for years, but have just moved back to home, a smallish city in the Midwest. Not as easy to find good wine, and especially the rose that I like. I tried Wine.com and Wine-searcher — no luck. Can you help?
I want my rose

Dear Rose:
Welcome to the joys of availability. Go to a good independent retailer and ask them to check if the wine has a distributor in your city. That’s not difficult, but not every retailer will do it. If the wine is available, the retailer can order it from the distributor even if they don’t ordinarily carry it. Again, not difficult, but not every retailer will do this. Hence, my recommendation of a quality independent retailer. Finally, you may have to accept that the wine doesn’t have a distributor in a smaller market. Or, even if it does, the distributor may not carry it. That’s another example of why three-tier is so infuriating.

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
Ask the WC 13: California chardonnay, grip, affordable wine
Ask the WC 12: $5 wine, varietal character, negative reviews
Ask the WC 11: Arsenic lawsuit, marijuana, wine competitions

Wine availability, and how it drives readers crazy, too

Wine availabilityThe email from the reader (paraphrased here) was direct: “I put together a list of 15 of your recommendations and searched online at two big West Coast chains, two of our local retailers, and was only able to find 4 out of the 15 wines. That’s mostly the same experience I’ve had with recommendations from the wine magazines. The wines just aren’t available for ordinary folks. What’s going on with how you determine wine availability?”

Ouch. “Mostly the same experience with the wine magazines”? “Not available for ordinary folks”? So much for 20-plus years of writing about the wine that most of us drink.

Welcome, once again, to the horror that is wine availability, the bane of my existence as a wine writer. I’ve written about this many times, and despite the changes in the wine business over the past 20 years, wine availability has not gotten any better. As this reader noted, it may actually have gotten worse.

How can this happen in the age of the Internet, where we have more retail choices than ever? Much of the blame lies with our old friend three-tier, which requires producers to do more work than they want to do — or are capable of doing — to sell the same wine in each of the 50 states. But that’s not the only reason:

? That there aren’t any national wine retailers, the way there are for supermarkets. The biggest chains, like Total Wine, are only in 15 states, so what does someone do in the other 35 if I write about a wine I bought at Total?

? That there aren’t any national brands in wine, like there are in other consumer goods. Every grocery store in the country is going to carry Heinz ketchup, but there is no brand similar to Heinz in wine. Even Barefoot, the best-selling U.S. wine, isn’t in every supermarket.

? The growth of private label wine, and especially in grocery stores and the largest chains. If they’re carrying more private label, there is less room for the wines that I write about, which are almost always not private label.

? The idea that European imports are less available as one moves west across the country, so that Italian, French, and Spanish wine is going to be more difficult to find in California than in New York.

So all I can do is to keep making the effort. I buy wine at supermarkets like Kroger, specialty grocers like Whole Foods, large retailers like Total, independent retailers in Texas, and national chains like World Market. My approach is that if the producer makes enough wine that I can buy it at one of those stores, it should be generally available in a decent-sized city with quality retailers. This way, I have the best chance of avoiding the 800-case wines that the Wine Spectator seems so fond of. And the first question I always ask when I get samples? “Who is the distributor?”, because if it is too small or too niche-driven, the wine won’t be easy to find.

But this, as the reader noted, is no guarantee. My only consolation? That if Franz Kafka had been a wine writer, we’d have a new definition for Kafkaesque.

More about the dilemma of wine availability:
? Wine availability: Whose fault is it anyway?
? Wine availability: How to find what you ?re looking for when it ?s not on the shelf
? Eric Asimov and the dilemma of wine availablity

Ask the WC 7: Winespeak, availability, Bordeaux

winespeakBecause the customers always have wine questions, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers in this irregular feature. Ask me a wine-related question by clicking here.

Wine Curmudgeon:
You use the term structure for wine, which sounds like a lot of jargon to me. What does structure mean?
Confused by language

Dear Confused:
Think of a wine’s structure like the structure of a house. A house has to have a foundation, a floor, and a roof. Leave one of those things out, and you don’t have much of a house. A wine, regardless of price, needs structure, too, and that includes tannins, fruit, and acidity in the proper proportions. Leave one of those out, and it’s like a house with a crappy roof — livable, but why would you want to?


Hey Curmudge:
Where do you buy your wine? I know you try to find wines that are available, but how do you do it?
Curious consumer

Dear Curious:
I’m one of the few wine writers in the country who buys wine to review, and it’s probably more than half the wines I do. The rest come from samples that producers send, and that number has fallen significantly since the recession. I shop for wine at least once a week in two or three places. I go to grocery stores like Kroger and Albertson’s, independent wine shops (Jimmy’s and Pogo’s are two of the best), chain wine shops (we have Spec’s and Total Wine in Dallas), and specialty stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and World Market. That way, I can compare prices, see who has what, and talk to retailers and customers. I enjoy this, not only because it’s part of a job that I like, but because I come from a long line of retailers, and learned to appreciate this stuff when I was a kid.


I have tried a few red Bordeauxs, and most are not very good in the $10-$20 range. I like many California cabernet sauvignons and red blends, and am not put off by the “earthiness” of French wines. But most of the Bordeauxs I ?ve tried are just harsh and bitter. Any suggestions for reasonably priced Bordeaux would be appreciated.
Searching for French value

Dear Searching:
You aren’t alone — Bordeaux has priced most wine drinkers out of its market, whether from greed, infatuation with China, or French stubbornness. It’s almost impossible to find quality red Bordeaux for less than $20 a bottle, as you note (Chateau Bonnet and one or two others being the exception). Instead, we get poorly made wine, whether with unripe grapes or raw tannins — just like the bad old days. Ironically, we talked about this in my El Centro class last week, that the wines that most Americans used to drink to learn about wine are now too expensive for most Americans to drink.

More Ask the Wine Curmudgeon:
? Ask the WC 6: Box wine, wine closeouts, open wine
? Ask the WC 5: Getting drunk, restaurant wine, wine reviews
? Ask the WC 4: Green wine, screwcaps, mold

Ask the WC 3: Availability, prices, headaches

Because the customers always write, and the Wine Curmudgeon has answers every month or so. Ask a wine-related question by clicking here.

I just returned to the U.S. from a three-year stint in the UK where cheap Bordeaux is a plenty at Sainsbury or Tesco. Before we left, we spent a week in Sicily and I stumbled into the Cusumano wines. Amazing stuff. What is the best way to purchase in the U.S.? We now live in Tennessee where you have to go to a package store to buy wine! Insane. Please advise.
Baffled by the three-tier system

Dear Baffled:
You aren ?t the only one. I get more availability questions than anything else; hence this post and this one, which should answer all your questions. Basically, first ask your retailer, and if that doesn ?t work, start Googling. You ?re spot on with the Cusumano, by the way. Love those wines. And I ?m jealous about the Bordeaux.


Dear Wine Guy:
You write a lot about how Americans buy cheap wine, but that no one pays enough attention. But maybe there ?s something you ?re missing. Do we buy cheap wine everywhere that sells wine, or only at certain places? Like do fine wine shops sell more expensive wine?
Wondering about prices

Dear Prices:
That ?s one of the best questions I ?ve ever received, and I don ?t know there ?s an exact answer. I consulted a bunch of really smart wine people, and we came up with these proportions, but there ?s no guarantee to their accuracy: About two-thirds of the wine sold at a mass market retailer like Walmart costs $12 or less and 80 to 90 percent of the wine sold at a grocery store costs $12 or less. At a fine wine shop, the numbers for a mass market retailer are likely reversed, so two-thirds of the wine sold there costs $12 or more.


Hey Wine Curmudgeon:
I have a friend who says she can drink beer OK, but wine, white or red, gives her migraine headaches ? and fast. Any clue as to what is the culprit?
My head hurts

Dear Head:
I have written about headaches, perhaps the great urban myth of wine. About one percent of the U.S. population is allergic to sulfites, which can cause the headaches. The rest of it, says one of the leading researchers in the field, is auto-suggestion. So there is a chance it is sulfites, though a small one ? and one she can test with dried apricots, which have 10 times the sulfites of wine. The other culprit might be histamines, common in wine and which can cause allergic reactions. But beer has histamines, too. So this is where I say I ?m not a doctor, and suggest asking one.

Wine availability: How to find what you’re looking for when it’s not on the shelf

Wine availability: How to find what you're looking for when it's not on the shelf

So much wine, but so much that never seems to be available.

Wine availability is the bane of any wine writer’s existence. Even the Wine Curmudgeon, who only writes about wine that I see on a store shelf or am assured is on a shelf on pain of my considerable wrath, gets emails all the time asking why something I wrote about isn’t available.
There are a variety of reasons for this, most of which are discussed in the link above. The point of this post is to help you find wine when your local retailer doesn’t have it.

The caveat in all of this is that wine availability varies from store to store, city to city and state to state. As Michigan State’s Phil Howard noted in his landmark study of the wine business, there are no national brands, and availability is one confused mess.

So these pointers should work — but it doesn’t mean they always will:

Ask the retailer to check his or her distributor books. More wines exist than any retailer can possibly carry, so just because they aren’t in the store doesn’t mean they aren’t available. A distributor book lists every single wine — often thousands for the biggest distributors — that can be sold at retail in that market, and many markets have at least a half a dozen distributors. If the wine is in one of the books, a good retailer will get it for you.

Check with the winery. Obviously, if you can buy it from them, so much the better. But if you can’t (thank you, three-tier system), send an email, and there’s a decent chance you’ll get a reply. The best solution: Some producers have database apps on their site, like this one from Terlato, that let you search for their wines in your area.

• The importer should know. If the wine is not made in the U.S., there’s a line on the back label that says “Imported by such and such.” Look for the importer’s web site; sometimes, they’ll have a database app. More likely, you’ll have to send an email.

• Look for on-line retailers like Wine.com. This comes with the proviso that on-line wine sales are notoriously annoying, what with shipping charges and state laws designed to restrict on-line sales.

• Use Wine-Searcher.com. Plug in a wine, and this site will tell you who carries it (as long as the retailer has paid to be listed in the results). Despite its limitations, which include results that aren’t consistent from search to search and outdated retailer availability, it can be quite helpful. And the free version is usually sufficient. One visitor to the blog used Wine-Searcher to find a wine I had reviewed that wasn’t available in her market, but was at another retailer in her state who shipped it to her.

• Send me an email. Believe me, I don’t mind forwarding it to the producer or importer.

James Tidwell on the dilemma of wine availability

James Tidwell of the Four Seasons in suburban Dallas is one of the top sommeliers in the country, the co-founder of the TexSom sommelier wine education group, and a wine blogger. As such, his view of of the wine world is a little different from the Wine Curmudgeon’s — call it more top down than bottom up. James buys wines from distributors to sell in his restaurant, which means he has more wines to choose from and which is not quite the same thing as desperately searching a retailer to find something interesting for dinner.

Or, as James told me the other day, “People used to tell me they couldn’t find good wine to drink, and I thought they were crazy.”

But not any more. James is on The Dallas Morning News Wine Panel, which recommends affordable wines that are generally available. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) And he has discovered that finding affordable wines that are generally available is not easy. (Sounds familiar, too, doesn’t it?) The panel may taste a wine it likes, but it can’t use the wine it isn’t sold in two retailers in the Dallas area.

“Every retailer seems to have the same 300 wines,” he says. “No wonder consumers end up drinking the same grocery store-style wines over and over.”

Which is the point of this story. If one of the most knowledgeable wine people in the country is frustrated by the conundrum that is wine availability, then don’t feel badly if you’re frustrated by it, too.

A few more words about wine availability

A regular visitor to the blog sent me an email this week, the gist of which was “I have trouble finding the wines you write about.”


As previously noted, the bane of the Wine Curmudgeon ?s existence is availability. In fact, it’s the bane of almost every wine writer’s existence, and I’ve even had winery officials tell me that it drives them crazy, too.

It’s always difficult, unless you’re writing for readers in one small part of one city, to negotiate the availability maze. Given my audience these days, which takes in people from around the world, it’s that much more difficult. All anyone can do, and what I try to do, is to write about wines that are “generally available,” and to note when wines have limited availability. Unfortunately, the term “generally available” seems to mean less and less these days. (Why that is — the recession, consolidation among producers, the vagaries of the three-tier system — is a subject for another day.)

I always ask, when I like a wine, if it has general U.S. distribution. If it doesn’t, I usually don’t write about it. In this sense, I am at the mercy of the winery, importer or distributor. That’s why I always link to the winery, importer, or distributor Web sites in the review. If you can’t find it locally, send the company in the link an email and ask them if there is a local distributor. If there is, you should be able to get a retailer in your area to order it for you.