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Wine availability, and how it drives readers crazy, too

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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

wineadvice

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 without 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.

Jeff:
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.

WC:
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.

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