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Wine availability, and why it matters to you

The bane of the Wine Curmudgeon’s existence is availability. Why are so many wines that I like not in stores for you to buy? In fact, get a group of wine writers together, and one of the topics that always comes up is availability. It drives us crazy. There is a bunch of great wine that you’ll never taste because retailers, for whatever reason, don’t want to carry it.

This week, I’m going to look at availability. I’ll review several wines that should be in more stores as well as discuss a rating system that takes availability into account. Is that one possible solution to this problem?

Today, after the jump, a look at what retailers buy, why they buy it, and what you can do about it.

That more interesting wines are not in stores is not necessarily the retailer’s fault. Even the best retailers are hampered by the restrictions of the three-tier system, which limits which wines they can carry.

The three-tier system regulates alcohol purchases in the U.S, and though it differs from state to state, the principle is the same. Consumers must buy wine from retailers who are licensed by their state to sell wine. Retailers can only buy wine from distributors, who are also licensed. And distributors must buy wine from the wineries. In other words, consumers can’t buy wine from distributors or wineries and retailer can’t buy it from wineries. (There are exceptions to this, especially on consumers buying from wineries, but the system remains pretty much intact despite a 2005 Supreme Court decision that was supposed to loosen it.)

The three-tier system is left over from the repeal of Prohibition, which allowed each state to regulate liquor sales in its own way. Coincidentally – or not so coincidentally, depending on how cynical one is – most states chose some form of the three-tier system.

What all this means is that your local wine shop can’t carry a wine unless a distributor licensed in his or her state has an agreement with the winery to distribute the wine. And since there are about 3,000 wineries in the country and less than 200 with real national distribution, you can see the dilemma. Imports are even more problematical, since importing is more complicated and the numbers of retailers and importers are more skewed.

This means that much of the real power in wine retailing lies with the distributor. Its decisions on what to sell to retailers – and what not to sell – takes much of the inventory process out of the hands of retailers. These is especially true for small retailers, who don’t have a lot of clout with their distributors. They might really want to carry a wine, but won’t be able sell enough of it to convince a distributor to sell it to them.

Still, even within the three-tier limitations, retailers have choices they don’t make. And this is where you come in.

This does not mean all retailers are at fault, and there are plenty of examples of retailers who aren’t the villains in the availability equation. And I do understand that retailers have to make a living, and that involves doing things I might not like. But, even so, too many retailers take the path of least resistance. That means:

• Carrying the same national brands that everyone else carries. These wines, the Kendall Jacksons and Yellow Tails of the world, pretty much sell themselves. What more could a retailer want?

• Focusing on high-margin wines, which are more profitable. These are usually private labels – the retailer’s version of Yellow Tail, for example – or more expensive wines.

• Relying on scores. A wine with a score is easier to sell. So wines without scores, unless they’re national brands, tend to get overlooked.

The big loser in all of this? Quality, inexpensive wines (as well as regional and local wines). Well-made $10 wines mostly aren’t national brands, don’t have high margins, and don’t get scores. The classic example is your much beloved Tormarecsa Neprica, which is head and shoulders better than many wines that cost two or three times as much. But try finding it on a store shelf. Difficult to do, even though its distributor is one of the biggest in the country.

So when you find a wine you like, and your retailer doesn’t carry it, ask why. Ask what can be done to get the retailer to carry it. Ask who the distributor is, and contact them. They can’t sell you the wine, but if they know someone wants it, they might try to sell it to the retailer.

You don’t have to settle for wine just because it’s available.

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