Sooner or later, every wine devotee from newbie to geek becomes enamored with a specific bottle. Whether trying to recreate a memorable restaurant experience, rediscover a bottle that has personal significance or finally sample a wine that won a rave review, there are plenty of reasons to obsess over a particular wine. And that obsession only grows when the object of your attention is nowhere to be found. How do you track down that special bottle? What are the skills of a good wine detective?
The first is the ability to orient yourself in a maze: Wine distribution in the U.S. operates with a crazy-quilt of Federal, state and local regulations and players, so often there will be no simple answer. Another is the ability to weigh your priorities, in terms of time and money: Highly prized, highly rated bottles are always in short supply, requiring more digging. As Martin Sinkoff, director of marketing for the well-known importer Frederick Wildman and Sons, notes, “Finding a fine wine is like a truffle hunt.”
At some point, you may need to think about whether you want only the specific wine that caught your fancy, or if a similar wine might be close enough. And always be prepared—some wines will prove to be entirely elusive.
But to start your hunt, assemble the relevant information—the full name of the wine, the winery, the vintage, the distributor or importer if you know it (more on that later)—before you ask for help. And be reasonable in what you ask a wine shop, distributor or winery to do for you in your quest.
The old-fashioned wine shop route
Your favorite local wine shop may not have that bottle, and neither will any of your backups. But a wine shop staff is still the best starting point for your search. As Kevin Hogan, wine buyer for The Spanish Table in Berkeley, California, specializing in Iberian food and wine, puts it, “There are only two hanger steaks on a cow, so you have to be the guy who knows the butcher.”
Ask your wine shop if they can get the wine, or at least help you on your journey:
►If the wine is available through a distributor the shop works with, they can probably get the wine.
►For good customers and upscale wines, the shop may be willing to get a single bottle, but case orders are more appreciated. “If it’s a $50 bottle, we’ll get one, if it’s a $10 dollar wine, it’s a case minimum,” confirms Nicholas Leveille, associate wine buyer at Table and Vine in Springfield, Massachusetts.
►It could be that the bottle in question simply isn’t distributed in your state, or is for restaurants only, in which case the Internet is your next resource.
►A knowledgeable wine shop should be able to suggest comparable wines they do have in stock, if that’s sufficient for your needs.
►One thing not to do is ask your wine shop if they can help you find another shop that might carry the wine; that would be your job.
Navigating the three-tier system
Most wine in the U.S. flows through the three-tier system, from producers to distributors to retailers; if the wine originates in another country, there’s another tier of importers. You may need to trace your way up and down the tiers in search of that bottle.
For domestic wines:
►Your local wine shop can help identify the distributor, even if it’s not one they deal with on a regular basis.
►You may be able to figure out the distributor through an Internet search, or by calling the winery directly.
►Once you find the distributor, you can call them, explain your mission and find out from someone in the office the name of a retailer in your area who carries the wine. When I called the Illinois number for national distributor Southern Wines and Spirits in Bolingbrook, the office manager said they’re happy to help consumers, fielding a couple of calls a day.
►Don’t be afraid to call a distributor, but remember that dealing directly with consumers isn’t their main business, and that they can’t simply hand you the bottle you crave, so be patient.
For imported wines:
►The back label of any imported wine must carry the name of the importer, so you’re halfway there.
►A call to the importer should get you the name of the distributor for your area, or the name and contact information for a regional sales manager. “We get these calls all the time,” says Sinkoff.
►Once you have the distributor’s name, proceed as you would above.
Straight to the winery
You’d think the simplest way to get your hands on a domestic wine would be to call the winery and have them ship you a bottle. Well, maybe.
►Direct-to-consumer shipping laws vary widely by state: Some are free and easy, some have complex permitting systems and some make wine shipments a felony.
►Wineries that sell over the phone or online usually start by asking for your ZIP code, to filter out impossible requests.
►If the winery cannot ship you the wine you want, ask them to give you the name and contact information for a distributor in your area.
►Some wineries are making it easier to figure this out yourself. Terlato Wines International, for example, which owns or distributes more than 50 domestic and international wine brands, has a WineFinder on its Web site that lets you locate nearby retail and restaurant outlets for any of its wines. At New Mexico’s Gruet Winery, producers of a broad range of highly regarded sparkling wines, Shannyn Harrison says they “get calls regularly, especially from older folks who don’t use the Internet,” and are happy to provide local contact information in all 50 states.
►Please don’t ask your favorite winery to risk felony charges by shipping wine outside the law.
A good resource for understanding the maze of state regulations can be found on the Wine Institute Web site, www.wineinstitute.org/initiatives/stateshippinglaws.
Uncorking the Internet
The Web offers a huge, sprawling collection of information about wine; the sharper your search skills, the more useful this channel is. With luck and a little practice, you may not only find the wine you want, but learn more about it and snag a discount deal.
►Start by searching for the full name of the wine (in quotation marks, so you get the whole deal), including vintage and any vineyard designation.
►Sift through the results, and you may find online sellers, high-volume wine shops that have it in stock or the name of the importer or distributor.
►If you’re searching for a nondomestic wine, and there’s almost nothing about it on the net, chances are it isn’t available in the U.S.
One of the most widely used online resources is wine-searcher.com, which offers a database of more than four million listings from the inventories of over 20,000 wine shops around the world (not just the U.S.).
►The free version is quite useful; more features are available for a small annual fee.
►Searches can be filtered by vintage, merchant location and other variables.
Besides showing price and whereabouts, many wine entries also display descriptions, tasting notes and so on.
►Merchants listed include not only brick-and-mortar wine shops, but online sellers, wine discounters and auction sites as well.
►Not all the wines listed are fancy bottles; if a participating merchant is selling a $7 wine, it’s in there.
►Alas, not every wine seller publishes its current inventory, so the fact that you can’t find a wine at Wine-Searcher doesn’t mean you can’t find it somewhere.
One new kid on the wine-finding block is snooth.com, which lets users locate wines and compare prices, but also includes social network-style features for adding your personal ratings, listing your cellar holdings and finding out who else is drinking what. Links to merchants and direct-sale wineries can also be found at wineweb.com.
Keep in mind that the Internet may make it easier to find a wine, but not necessarily easier to get it; interstate shipping laws trump the virtual world. Happy hunting.