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A lose-lose situation

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chris Camarda makes stunning red wines, primarily from Bordeaux grape varieties grown in the Columbia Valley, at Andrew Will Winery on Vashon Island, Wash. But Andrew Will wines are not distributed in our area. Virginia and District residents may order them from the winery or from retail stores in other states; however, I and my fellow Marylanders cannot.

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Nor can we buy Whitcraft Winery's delicious pinot noirs from various vineyard sites in California. These wines have struggled to find representation among a crowd of wines in distribution channels that have become increasingly narrow because of consolidation among wholesalers. Large firms have gobbled up smaller, regional distributors. Smaller wineries, with limited availability, become hard sells. Many of them simply do not try for representation through the traditional system, preferring to sell through mailing lists or out the winery door.

Travel to any region in the United States, and you may find an exciting local wine that is sold at the winery or to a few local outlets. One I tasted last year was a Madeira-style dessert wine by Haak Vineyards & Winery in Santa Fe, Texas, made from a grape called Blanc du Bois. (Tennessee Williams fans, take note!) There is no way I will find that wine in Montgomery County's government-run liquor stores.

Terry Theise is a nationally acclaimed importer, credited with launching the current craze for small-grower champagne. He grew up in Washington's Maryland suburbs and lives in Silver Spring, so we can claim him as our own (even though he imports through a New York company). Yet of the 15 champagne growers in Theise's portfolio, only seven are carried by his D.C.-area distributor, and then only the basic cuvees. If I want a bottle of 2002 H. Billiot Fils, one of the most spine-tickling champagnes I've ever tasted, I'm out of luck.

"Artisan importers tend to have portfolios reflecting what our growers produce: small batches of lots of different wines," he says. Distributors, on the other hand, "tend to favor operational and logistical efficiency, for obvious and understandable reasons. I have about 500 different wines" -- in a portfolio that spans Germany and Austria as well as Champagne -- "but my wholesaler here carries about 25. And even in a perfect world I can't imagine him carrying more than 75. I want him to be sustainable, too!"

Market forces limit our choices. Maryland law limits them even more. That is not fair.

-- D.M.


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