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Uncorking the Mysterious World of Wine Distribution

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For amateur wine lovers, myself included, the basic process of wine making is not a huge mystery: Grow grapes, press the juice, introduce yeast (enabling fermentation), age in barrels or tanks, then bottle and possibly allow the wine to age some more before it is ready to drink. The process is straightforward enough that a winemaker once told me that "Anybody can make wine." (I might quibble that while anyone can make wine, not everyone can make good wine.)

Photo by James Ransom

I learned the fundamentals of winemaking from numerous pilgrimages to wineries in Virginia—not just the tasting rooms, but the fermentation tanks and barrel rooms, too—as well as from my friend Eric Gold. Eric and I met five years ago at the local wine shop he and his wife, Jess, owned at the time. But, although I knew how wine was made, until recently, there was an aspect of wine that was still a mystery to me: How does that wine make it from the winery to my favorite restaurant or local wine shop?


The short answer is—almost always through a wine distributor. The longer answer: After the passage of the 21st Amendment ending Prohibition in 1933, the regulation of alcohol sale and consumption was left to the states. Laws vary, but in general, they are structured to prevent any single individual from controlling all three tiers of the industry—production, distribution, and retail—in order to impose control (and taxes) on the alcohol industry, as well as to prevent the excesses that lead to Prohibition in the first place.​

How (& Why) To Avoid the Second Cheapest Bottle of Wine
How (& Why) To Avoid the Second Cheapest Bottle of Wine

For the wine industry, this means that distributors purchase their wine from wineries or importers but are not allowed to sell directly to consumers. Retailers like restaurants and wine shops purchase wine from the wholesale distributors to sell to consumers but are not allowed to purchase wine directly from wineries. (There are exceptions to all of these generalities, for example, wineries are often allowed to sell their own wine to consumers or breweries can have restaurants on site which serve their own beer.)

This system means that managing all of the different distributors is a major job for anyone running a wine shop. "While picking wines to purchase for my shop might seem like an easy task, it's certainly not. I work with about 20 wine distributors in total, all jockeying for more placements in my shop" Eric told me, continuing, "I meet with them on a weekly basis to taste potential wines, in all I usually taste between 70 to 100 wines per week. There is a lot of fast analysis that goes into tasting wines to purchase." When asked what is required to keep up with his customers, he said:


"It takes time to learn, understand, and stay ahead of an always changing customer base. Customers are more educated on the subject of wine now than they ever have been. We now see patrons ask for certain appellations, districts, vintages, and producers as opposed to varietal only."

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Anatomy of a Wine Shop by Cathy Huyghe

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I recently got the privilege to experience a little of what wine retailers are up against as I sampled wines at Mondovino, an annual event run by Kysela Pere et Fils, a wine importer and distributor in Virginia. If the name "Mondovino" conjures a vision of an enormous selection of wines, you are correct. The tasting list is in actuality a 166-page book containing 645 beverages that will be available at the event.

It is not possible to drink 645 wines; It is not possible to even taste 645 wines. We sampled wines from all over the world: amazing Tempranillos from Rioja in Spain, wonderfully fruity Pinot Noirs from California and Washington, and deep dark flavors of Brunellos from Italy. We focused on red wines, but there were wines to suit every palate and every price point. Each wine is listed with a description of the producer, included varietals, flavor profile, and any awards or accolades it has received.​

The seemingly never-ending selection of wines at Mondovino. Photos by Jeremy Beker

The experience of being exposed to the huge variety of wines available in the market gave me a newfound respect for the work that my local wine merchants do: All of that information feeds into the decisions that retailers make. Navigating a shop full of wine or even a single page wine list at a restaurant is often daunting enough as a consumer, but navigating hundreds or thousands of wines and choosing a subset that will satisfy a vast range of consumers takes incredible skill.

Eric considers numerous factors when deciding what to purchase, like how a wine compares to a benchmark, archetype example based on varietal, vintage, region, and price. He's also thinking about if the wine over-delivers for the retail price he would sell it at (so you, the customer gets the most bang for your buck). And, of course, whether or not his customers will buy it, saying: "I don't have to be in love with every bottle in my store, but I want the customer that buys that bottle to be, whether it's $8 Moscato or a $200 cult Cabernet. While I might love some wines I taste, I know they just wouldn't work for my customers and vice versa."

The best way to figure out what you like—taste and talk to an expert.
The best way to figure out what you like—taste and talk to an expert. Photo by Tiffany Beker

Even with all this complexity, finding a great wine that you and your guests will love is actually quite simple. Find a local wine merchant that will talk with you about your likes and dislikes and make friends with them. You will then have a trusted expert who will work with you to find the wines that are best for your palate trusting that they have gone to great lengths to chose the wines they sell.

Who's your favorite local wine merchant? Give them a shout out in the comments!

Tags: wine, wine distribution, wineries