The 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