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Why the wine hunt can be so difficult

Finding the right bottle is really about the battle between big brands and the little guy. Jon Bonné considers the dilemma

Here’s the wine wonk’s endless dilemma: Do I write about wines that interest and excite me, or do I write about wines that everyone can buy?

It’s nearly impossible to do both. The American system of wine distribution is constructed to create unequal markets: Wines available in Denver or Des Moines aren’t the same as those available in New York or Miami. You can argue forever about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing (wholesalers who have the upper hand in this system vigorously argue the former, most wine aficionados believe the latter) but it doesn’t matter. Until a new one comes along, it’s the system we’ve got.

The most frequent question readers ask: Where can I buy the wines you recommend? I’ve , but there's simply no way to suggest specific retailers to readers in every state. Last year’s overhauls of wine shipping laws helped level the playing field, but little has changed for millions of consumers in states like Florida or Pennsylvania.

Which leaves two options: (1) Recommend only big-name, mass-produced wines that can be found nearly everywhere, or (2) Recommend special, distinctive wines and hope that you’ll be able to find them.

Option 1 isn't an appealing prospect. The nation’s top 30 wine companies (here’s a recent list) represent 90 percent of the wine sold in the United States. You'll notice familiar names, like Gallo, and less familiar ones, like Constellation Brands, a wine superpower whose labels (Mondavi, Ravenswood, Vendange) are familiar to most drinkers. It includes vintners whose public image belies their impressive size (Bonny Doon, Niebaum-Coppola) and who nonetheless turn out interesting, unique wines. They have ad dollars and clout with wholesalers.

These companies produce plenty of decent wines, and I’ve recommended more than a few. Still, the majority of the wine under Option 1 is made to be generically pleasing. It is to good wine what McDonald’s is to fine dining.

Now, millions of people like McDonald’s, and millions of people like corporate wines. If you’re one of them and you enjoy what you drink, then you're way ahead of the game. Choosing wine is all about matching people to what gives them pleasure, and you’ve accomplished that.

But restaurant reviewers are tasked with sorting out the world of food beyond McDonald’s. Shouldn't wine writers be doing just the same?

A few exceptions don't fit this mold, like high-end Bordeaux: expensive, often amazing wines produced in enough quantity that, with a bit of effort, you can buy some nearly anywhere. (Bordeaux’s biggest coup has been to create the appearance of scarcity. It’s not for nothing that Mouton Rothschild can make 250,000 bottles and sell each at over $150 retail. Top Champagne houses mastered this, too.) But they already have their share of cheerleaders.

Helping the little guys
How about Option 2?  Wine may be dominated by big names, but it’s still largely an industry of small businesses — little guys who employ a handful of people and produce perhaps a few thousand cases. Many of them make mediocre wine too, but they also are responsible for most of the world’s unique, interesting wines. The little guys need support. They face a tough battle to get their wines into new markets.

Unless you live in a big city, with access to wine superstores and niche boutiques, or somewhere that allows wine shipping, you’re at the mercy of whatever forces control your local market. And though many small retailers across the country relish in hunting down the obscure, here’s the frustrating truth: Alcohol distribution in this country is still mostly about spirits and beer. Wine is almost an afterthought.

This isn’t a small-town issue, either. Living in Seattle for the past five years, I knew that the wine shops had no choice but to specialize in good wine (the Washington liquor control board sells all hard liquor). Now back in New York City, I’ve walked into an astounding number of liquor stores that suffer from the Big Brand problem — and walked out empty-handed because I couldn’t find a single wine worth my money. All I can do is take my business elsewhere. Is that a practical solution? Not really.

So if you’ve ever been frustrated in your wine hunt, let me share the same tips I give my parents when they call, unable to find yet another of my recommendations:

  • Almost every U.S. winery has a Web site. Call or e-mail them and ask how to get their wine in your area.
  • I list the U.S. importer of every foreign wine I mention. You or your local retailer should be able to contact them to check its availability. You can't order it from them (by law, only a distributor can) but it's a start.
  • If all that fails, seek out similar wines in a similar price range — perhaps the same grape and region, but a different producer. It’s not the same, but a trustworthy (and that’s the key word) store should be able to steer you straight. Just make sure you don’t walk in looking for $12 kabinett riesling from the Pfalz and walk out with a rare $40 spätlese from the Mosel. To that end, my resolution for 2006 is to be as precise as possible in describing what I recommend, and why.

Where do you fall between Options 1 and 2? Use the box at the bottom of the page to share your thoughts. I’m back to more specific wine topics in two weeks, but I’ll share some of your feedback soon.

Tasting notes
So just how hard it is to track down these wines? In addition to the usual notes, let's consider how difficult the hunt might be for each bottle in this grab bag.

Domaine des Baumard 2001 Savennières (Ex Cellars, $20): This Loire Valley chenin blanc might be a tough find, especially since it's an older vintage, though it's still available in many East Coast stores, and our bottle was originally located in Seattle. The nose is full of sweet apple and fig, but it's bone-dry to drink, with a silky texture that offsets the crisp minerality at its core. You might not be able to find this particular one, but it's worth asking about Savennières, perhaps the greatest of the dry Loire chenin blancs and a perfect seafood wine. Just keep an eye on vintages: 2002s seem to be much higher in alcohol than the '01s.

Hiedler 2004 Kamptal ‘Löss’ grüner veltliner (Michael Skurnik, $13): An especially refreshing pick from Austria, with razor-sharp crispness focused on lemon and dry mineral notes, and yet it's got a full, well-defined texture. Skurnik is a respected, well-known importer that should be familiar to any good wine shop, and this great bargain of a grüner has national, if limited, availability.

Roederer Estate NV Anderson Valley brut rosé ($25): Though we mentioned Roederer's mainline brut a , this pink version is a much rarer beast, with a large dose of chardonnay (40 percent) to match the pinot noir. Has a headier toast and almond-skin aromas than the standard brut, along with tart raspberry and a lot more body, perhaps thanks to two years aging. Though just 5,300 cases were produced in the most recent batch (compared to 80,000 for the standard brut) you can find it in markets across the country.

Two Angels 2004 High Valley petite sirah ($26): Sauvignon blanc fans might recognize the name of the winemaker, Bob Pepi. He and his father Robert founded the Pepi winery in 1981. But after their winery was bought by Kendall-Jackson, Pepi had to find other names to use on his various wine projects. The Two Angels label uses fruit from California's Lake County, and this elegant, smooth new petite sirah is full of tar and pepper scents. With just under 2,000 cases produced, it may be a bit challenging to find — certainly more than the widely distributed wines under the Pepi brand. It won't be available nationwide until the end of the month. Good hunting.