BEN GILIBERTI Ever since you recommended the Chateau de Valcombe 2003 Costieres de Nimes Cuvee Prestige as a must-buy in March, I have been searching for it far and wide. Someone finally came up with a case for me, but it turned out to be 2002, not 2003. Help!

Wines are often difficult to find after a favorable review. This is a recurring problem with hot new releases. I offer the example of the 2003 Chateau de Valcombe Cuvee Prestige ($13) as a strategy for solving it, not merely for this particular wine, but also for other wines in the future.

With wine shopping, as with much in life, there are three options when you can't get what you want: wait, substitute or give up.

I'm almost never in favor of giving up. In the case of wines, there are tools that can help you to find what you are looking for. On the Internet, www.winesearcher.com automatically searches the Web sites of retail shops in the United States and elsewhere. The site has a few kinks, but I use it regularly with good results.

For the Valcombe, I started with winesearcher.com's basic service, which is free but limits searches to the approximately 200 wine retailers that sponsor the site. Although only a few of the sponsors are located in the Washington area, it is often enough.

The free search told me that the wine was available at the Wine Specialist retail shop at 22nd and M streets NW for $12.99. Unfortunately, when I telephoned the store to confirm, I was told that it was sold out. Owner Steve Maisel explained that if a wine sells out, winesearcher.com doesn't necessarily know that immediately. So I suggest always confirming by telephone.

I next tried winesearcher.com's "pro version," which costs $29 for a one-year subscription but searches many more stores. This time the results were better. Although it repeated the bogus tip on the Wine Specialist, it listed the Valcombe in stock at Calvert Woodley on Connecticut Avenue NW at $12.99.

My telephone follow-up revealed that Calvert Woodley had more than 30 cases in stock at that time. After the initial sellout, the store ordered several dozen more cases.

This pleasant discovery demonstrates the virtues of the "wait" option. In my experience, after the initial frenzy, stocks are often replenished after a modest delay.

Should you buy the 2002 substitute for the 2003 Valcombe? I advise caution. The 2002 vintage was a disaster in southern France (which includes the Costieres de Nimes area) because of torrential rains at harvest. In contrast, 2003 set heat records, producing wines with unusually intense flavors, and masses of soft tannins, the precise characteristics in the 2003 Valcombe Cuvee Prestige that put it over the top for me. When I have tasted consecutive vintages and determined they are of roughly equal quality, I indicate it with a "2003/2002" or similar notation. If you don't see that, it's a shot in the dark.

The quest for Valcombe provides a final, serendipitous, plot twist. Shortly after my initial review, and with supplies of Valcombe dwindling, Pearson's, on Wisconsin Avenue NW, offered what it described as an "almost identical wine" called Chateau de Surville Costieres de Nimes for the same price. I was dubious, but after sipping and sniffing them side-by-side, I concluded that Chateau de Surville is not "almost identical" to Valcombe; it is in fact the very same wine, sold under an alternative label.

Based on my most recent search on winesearcher.com pro version, Chateau de Valcombe 2003 Cuvee Prestige remains available at several shops across the country. (As of Monday, Calvert Woodley still had about 100 bottles of Chateau de Valcombe 2003 Cuvee Prestige, plus a few bottles of Chateau de Surville. Other area stores that are not included in winesearcher.com also might have one or both wines.)

Here's a new recommendation for a wine coming into stores now:

Columbia Winery 2002/2003 Chardonnay Wyckoff Vineyard "David Lake Signature Series" ($19; Washington; NDC): With a ringing finish reminiscent of a Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru white Burgundy, this Washington chardonnay has a near-ideal balance of crisp acidity and firm apple-like fruit, nuanced with notes of yeast smoky oak. A very impressive value.

Ben Giliberti, The Post's wine critic since 1987, can be reached at food@washpost.com.

Can you taste the difference?

Hint: There isn't any.