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Wine availability: Whose fault is it anyway?

The reader didn’t mince any words: “This is the third time I have attempted to purchase a wine you recommended in your column only to find that one or more of the locations you identified as carrying the wine was listed erroneously. … As for me, I will ignore your reviews in future since the prospect of actually obtaining the wine is remote.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t a blog reader; rather, it was someone castigating Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post. But it could have been someone here – or anywhere in the wine world, for that matter. Availability is the bane of the wine writer’s existence, and there is very little we can do about it.

Did Dave’s reader have a right to expect the wine to be in that particular store? He did. But it wasn’t Dave’s fault that it wasn’t there, because wine doesn’t work that way. After the jump: Why that’s the case, and why not much can be done about it.

How bad is availability? One former editor accused me of making it up, because she couldn’t find the wine at the locations I listed. She never understood that wine, unlike blue jeans, breakfast cereal, and aspirin, is not always going to be in stock when and where we’re told it’s in stock.

Much of this is the fault of the three-tier system, which requires retailers to buy wine from distributors. That means a retailer who says he or she has the wine because they’ve placed an order for it won’t have it if the order isn’t filled. That’s all too common – maybe the distributor runs out or doesn’t get it in or the store delivery is late or the sales person loses the order or the order gets chewed up in the system or the distributor doesn’t have enough of the wine to begin with. The list goes on.

This is especially important because most retailers don’t carry dozens of bottles of each wine, unless it’s a well-known brand like Kendall-Jackson or Barefoot. They may have a case or even less, and this is especially true for the interesting wines that good critics like Dave recommend. Mostly, this is because of shelf space and cost. Most retailers don’t have room for a lot of wine that isn’t well-known because they don’t know if it’s going to sell, and they don’t want to pay for something that isn’t going to sell.

So if I call a retailer on Monday to check availability for an article that’s going to run on Wednesday, they may sell out before then. Or try to order it and fail. Or sell out shortly after the review comes out. Further complicating matters is that large metro areas, like the District of Columbia, could have dozens of stores that carry the wine, which makes it impractical to call every store to check. Or that some distributors and retailers are sometimes less than candid about availability.

And then disgusted customers send unhappy emails to wine writers, even when it’s not the writer’s fault.

More about wine availability:
James Tidwell on the dilemma of wine availability
Wine availability: How to find what you’re looking for when it’s not on the shelf
A few more words about wine availability

7 Responses to Wine availability: Whose fault is it anyway?

  1. jimrain@gmail.com' Jim R says:

    That’s a good explanation, and I understand better why you’d be hesitant to name any particular store in connection with a particular wine. But I wonder if you’d be willing to list wine stores in Dallas that you regularly patronize or recommend?

  2. Jeff Siegel says:

    I shop at nearly a dozen stores in the Dallas area, believe it or not. I’ve even bought wine at Aldi. For one thing, I like to see what everyone has and to compare prices. For another, not all stores carry the same thing, so I may shop one retailer when I’m looking for one thing and another when I’m looking for something else. About the only places I don’t shop are the big warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s.

  3. The even bigger problem is the distributor will not order the wine from the winery so the retail store never has a chance to buy the wine at all. That is one of the reasons direct to consumer shipping sales are up so much. With distributor consolidation happening more and more there is less and less chance of the consumer actually being able to find the interesting wines that writer’s might recommend, especially if it is a small winery

  4. wblakegray@gmail.com' Blake Gray says:

    I have a solution that’s either three words, two words or one word, depending on how you count punctuation:
    wine-searcher.com

  5. acevola@swbell.net' Alfonso says:

    While I am sympathetic to Erich’s lament, it bears little resemblance to the facts on the ground. The reality is there is plenty of wine in the wholesaler’s warehouses and nobody is being shut out. It’s a matter of finding the right fit with the 40 or so wholesalers (in TX).
    there are more wines in the markets now than they have ever been in history. there are also more wineries around as well. And the consumer today has more choices than they ever have been. It’s a half-full scenario, not a half-empty one.

  6. I do have a distributor in Texas. I have tried to get him to order our better wines over ten times and they only order the value wines. I have shipped over 100 cases of my better wines to Texas from people ordering direct from the winery because they cannot find the wines, so I do in fact speak from fact. I can also tell you that I have at least 20 fiends who can not get their wine distributed in Texas no matter what they do. It is not a matter of correct fit its a matter of size

  7. acevola@swbell.net' Alfonso says:

    While I feel Erich’s pain, it comes down to what the market can bear. There is only so much space in wholesaler’s warehouses. There is even less space on retailer’s shelves and on wine lists. That Erich has a distributor is a plus, but it doesn’t end there. In today’s world (which has been consolidating, by my account, since 1987) one must develop their relationship, not only with their end-users, but with their distributor. And that cannot be done in front of a laptop – like farming, it is a visceral, physical effort.
    I don’t mean to make this sound like a comment that defends the wholesaler’s position. There is plenty they do right and there are plenty of things that need fixing. But if one’s wines are not selling, or one cannot get their wines into the market, there is one place to look: the mirror.
    It’s the same message I tell salespersons- if your account isn’t buying from you, it’s not their fault – it’s yours – you haven’t done a good enough job of selling yourself, your products and their benefits, to your client. It is indeed a matter of correct fit – and it’s the job of anyone who is selling a product to make sure the fit is ultimately a comfortable one, for all parties.
    Those 20 or so friends, I would bet big bucks, if they really (and I mean “really”) wanted in, they could get in, even in a crowded field. But they would have to do whatever it takes in today’s world to get in. And those things are different than they were 5-10-25 years ago. It’s much more competitive, not just from other wines offered, but also from other beverages, spirits, beer, soda, water, and there are folks doing “whatever it takes” to get their products in.
    One could just complain about how they aren’t getting what they need. But believe me, no one will give you their full attention and sympathy – we all have our problems and we all have to solve them and no one gets an easy ride on this little orb.
    I was in Napa last week talking to a French winemaker who moved to California. Very passionate, very good wines, very reasonably priced. His lament was, “I thought I only had to make very good wine – now I know that is half the job- the other half is to figure out how to sell it in and through (the account, the warehouse, the wine list).” Similarly, when a friend tells me they have a distributor in Texas (and it isn’t “working out”), I ask them to consider it this way: “You have agreed to work with a company that warehouses, invoices and delivers your product. In that company there are some folks who sell it. But ultimately they don’t own it – you do – and you must “own” how that product will (or won’t) be successful. If you are not willing to accept that responsibility (and reality) then you need to get a better plan to find a home for your products.”
    So, my thoughts are, and this is based on many years of being in the trenches and on the front lines, to make it a goal that no-one (not even oneself) will prevent from achieving. It’s not impossible, but it isn’t going to be handed to anyone. It has to be earned, day by day and it is not a right. It is something one has to fight for, every day, to keep, to maintain it and to continue to grow.
    Respectfully submitted…

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