Why bottles aren’t always where they should be

Columnist July 16, 2013

My June 12 column on rosés prompted this e-mail from a reader in Alexandria: 

“After reading your review in today’s Food section, I tried to pick up a bottle at Unwined in Belleview,” he wrote, naming a store that, along with its sibling on King Street in Alexandria, had been listed as carrying two of the five wines I recommended: Domaine du Dragon from Provence and Mittlebach T-Zweigelt from Austria. Unfortunately, the shelves were bereft of both.

Dave McIntyre is the wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

 “This is the third time I have attempted to purchase a wine you recommended in your column only to find that one or more of the locations you identified as carrying the wine was listed erroneously,” he continued. The store manager assured him that the listing was not a bait-and-switch tactic and offered to order the wines for him. “I do not intend to make the trip again,” the reader added.

“You should keep in mind that journalists, even wine critics, have an obligation to provide current and accurate information to their readers to maintain their credibility and that of the publication,” he concluded. “As for me, I will ignore your reviews in future since the prospect of actually obtaining the wine is remote.”

I receive more e-mails thanking me for including store listings than I do complaints, but this reader was not the first to tell me that wines were not available at listed stores on or shortly after the date of publication. I also have heard from retailers frustrated that they were not listed even though they carried the wines, and some who complained that my column drove potential customers into their stores when they did not have those wines on hand.

The Food section includes store and restaurant listings for my recommended wines as a reader service, prefaced by this recently amended note: “Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be available at additional stores. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.”

Wine distributors supply information for the listings, about a week before publication. Some of them check their sales records for the previous three months or a few weeks; others, to be honest, probably name stores by memory. Stores might sell out of a wine before my recommendation appears.

Domaine du Dragon is imported by Dionysus Imports of Lorton. Wine manager Catherine Kaylor gave me a list of stores that had ordered at least one case of it during the previous two months. (She also lets stores know they will be mentioned in my recommendations.)

More of the Dragon was delivered the day my review of it appeared in The Post, says Vanessa Moore, proprietor of the two Unwined stores. But that was apparently too late for the disgruntled reader.

“First impressions are everything,” Moore says, “and when we’re unable to meet a client’s expectation, it’s more than disappointing.”

It’s a hodgepodge market, covering the District, Maryland and Virginia, with three sets of regulations and often three distributors for a single wine. Some distributors sell only in the District; others in the District and Maryland but not Virginia. Republic National, a major distributor, has a separate company serving each jurisdiction. 

Virginia requires stores to pay on delivery, so unless retailers have money available, they can’t order several cases of a wine because they know a review is coming. Montgomery County controls sales of alcoholic beverages and limits stores and restaurants to one delivery a week: no rush orders. My recommendations are not choreographed to coincide with deliveries to stores. With this confusing distribution network, often the best we can do is offer a roadmap, however imperfect, to help you find a wine. 

Even with such limitations, that reader should have left Unwined with a promising bottle rather than a grudge. He went to the store looking for wines I chose, so my column must have made him thirsty. 

That’s good, and it’s one of my goals: to encourage you to try different wines and explore beyond the comfortable, familiar bottles. The selections I recommend are merely suggestions. By no means are they the only good wines out there. The stores listed, even when they don’t have the bottles in stock when you show up, are the type of retailers that carry the wines I like. If they don’t have that particular label, they probably have something similar and maybe even better. If you trust me enough to walk into the store based on my reviews, you should trust them enough to walk out with a bottle. If you must have the wine I recommended, let them order it for you.

The only palate that matters is yours. I merely hope that I can help you expand your horizons to try something different. When you go to a store and it doesn’t have the wines I recommend (and, yes, it will happen), ask what else they have that’s new and exciting. That’s the adventure. And if you like what you come home with, let me know so I can try it, too, and share the news.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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