Knowing how wine is distributed can reduce your frustration

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

We've all been there ― standing in a shop holding a pieceof paper on which we've scrawled the name of a wine we've read isfantastic. But no one in the shop has ever heard of the wine, orworse, the salesperson scoffs when we ask for it ― no meremortal 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 thepraise (or the score) a wine receives, the less likely it is we'llever find it? And are there any insider techniques for gettingahold of wines that everyone says are impossible to find?

First, the harsh reality: Unlike cars, stereos, or even mostfoods, wine is a finite entity, the production of which cannot beincreased at will. Let's say that one night at a restaurant yousprung for a bottle of Shafer's special Hillside Select CabernetSauvignon and loved it. The next day you tried to find it, but noluck. Here's why: Shafer Vineyards is one of about 280 wineries inthe relatively small Napa Valley, located in an even smallersection known as the Stags Leap District, just 3 miles long andbarely 1 mile wide. And the wine called Hillside Select comes fromonly certain sites on the estate. The upshot of it is, every yearShafer can make only 1,800 to 2,200 cases of Hillside Select forthe entire world. (And while that isn't very much, many desirablewines are made in even smaller quantities.)

And who gets that wine? First of all, top restaurants. A wineryalways prefers to sell its wine to restaurants because of theexposure it will get. Thousands of people will see the wine on thelist, and over time, hundreds of people will try it. Even a singlebottle might be shared by, say, four diners. By contrast, in aretail shop, one individual can snap up every case the shophas.

Of course, most fine wines are made in enough quantity that somewill be available through wine shops. But, even then, you may notsee it because wine shops often hold aside rare and hard-to-findwines for frequent, loyal customers. For an outsider, it can bepractically impossible to break into this loop.

What to do

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

2. Read carefully. If a wine magazine carries a glowingreview, but then notes that only 200 cases of the wine were made,your chances of securing it are slim. Forget about it and move onto 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 orher know that you're interested in trying special wines. Every nowand then, ask what the shop might have "in the back room." Justbecause you don't see the wine on the shelves doesn't mean the shopdoesn't have a few bottles stashed away somewhere.

4. Make special requests. Even if a shop doesn't carry awine, 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 makingloyal customers.

5. Check the winery's website. Although we don't have spacehere to go into the complex legalities that govern winedistribution and sales in the United States, you may live in one ofthose 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 andask for a list of shops and restaurants near you where its wine issold.

Delicious wines you probably canfind

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

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 1999 (Napa Valley), $33. GrgichHills 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 thebest in California.

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

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

Sunset's Wine Club

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