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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.”

Sigh.

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.

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