Why can't I find that wine?

Knowing how wine is distributed can reduce your frustration
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

We've all been there ― standing in a shop holding a piece of paper on which we've scrawled the name of a wine we've read is fantastic. But no one in the shop has ever heard of the wine, or worse, the salesperson scoffs when we ask for it ― no mere mortal would ever be able to put his or her hands on that wine.

What's going on here? Why does it often seem that the higher the praise (or the score) a wine receives, the less likely it is we'll ever find it? And are there any insider techniques for getting ahold of wines that everyone says are impossible to find?

First, the harsh reality: Unlike cars, stereos, or even most foods, wine is a finite entity, the production of which cannot be increased at will. Let's say that one night at a restaurant you sprung for a bottle of Shafer's special Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon and loved it. The next day you tried to find it, but no luck. Here's why: Shafer Vineyards is one of about 280 wineries in the relatively small Napa Valley, located in an even smaller section known as the Stags Leap District, just 3 miles long and barely 1 mile wide. And the wine called Hillside Select comes from only certain sites on the estate. The upshot of it is, every year Shafer can make only 1,800 to 2,200 cases of Hillside Select for the entire world. (And while that isn't very much, many desirable wines are made in even smaller quantities.)

And who gets that wine? First of all, top restaurants. A winery always prefers to sell its wine to restaurants because of the exposure it will get. Thousands of people will see the wine on the list, and over time, hundreds of people will try it. Even a single bottle might be shared by, say, four diners. By contrast, in a retail shop, one individual can snap up every case the shop has.

Of course, most fine wines are made in enough quantity that some will be available through wine shops. But, even then, you may not see it because wine shops often hold aside rare and hard-to-find wines for frequent, loyal customers. For an outsider, it can be practically impossible to break into this loop.

What to do

1. While there are great wines that are hard to find, there are also great wines that aren't. Don't be too obsessed with your search.

2. Read carefully. If a wine magazine carries a glowing review, but then notes that only 200 cases of the wine were made, your chances of securing it are slim. Forget about it and move on to something else.

3. Be a good customer. Develop a rapport with a wine shop, especially with the person who actually buys the wine; let him or her know that you're interested in trying special wines. Every now and then, ask what the shop might have "in the back room." Just because you don't see the wine on the shelves doesn't mean the shop doesn't have a few bottles stashed away somewhere.

4. Make special requests. Even if a shop doesn't carry a wine, it can often order it. This won't cost you any more ― in fact, most wine shops are happy to do this as a way of making loyal customers.

5. Check the winery's website. Although we don't have space here to go into the complex legalities that govern wine distribution and sales in the United States, you may live in one of those states that allows you to buy wine directly from the winery. If you do, get on the winery's mailing list.

6. If all else fails, pick up the phone. Call the winery and ask for a list of shops and restaurants near you where its wine is sold.

Delicious wines you probably can find

Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2000 (Sonoma County), $10. Easy to drink, easy to pair with food, and easy to afford. Lots of fresh green flavors.

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 1999 (Napa Valley), $33. Grgich Hills is always dependable and always available. If you like big, rich, round, well-balanced Chardonnays, you'll love this one.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2000 (Napa Valley), $15. Snappy, sassy, bone-dry, and sleek, Trefethen's dry Riesling is one of the best in California.

Black Opal Cabernet/Merlot 1999 (Barossa Valley, Australia), $11. Supple, dense, and mouth-filling, this combo from Oz is packed with irresistible cherry flavors and just the right bite of menthol.

Rosemount Estate Diamond Shiraz 1998 (Southeast Australia), $12. This is the best-selling Australian red wine in the United States, and no wonder ― soft and thick on the palate and packed with plummy fruit flavors.

Sunset's Wine Club