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Find That Wine
By Robert Whitley
Mar 25, 2008
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Many of my recent columns and comments touting various gold-medal winning wines have unleashed a familiar response. Where, oh where, does a person find those wines? I share your pain.

Here's the problem. Wine is not Coca-Cola. The winery can't just make another batch of a popular item when it runs out. There is a finite supply, and when it's gone, it's really gone. The next vintage could be months away, and even then it wouldn't necessarily be the same wine. Similar perhaps, but not the same.

For that very reason grocery store chains tend to gravitate toward brands that are produced in quantity. You know the usual suspects: Kendall-Jackson, Meridian, Gallo, Woodbridge, Robert Mondavi Private Selection, BV Coastal.

All of these brands - and there are others in this category - maintain a level of quality and consistency that is admirable considering they are the product of an industrial process far removed from the idyllic notion of the passionate vintner lovingly tending his land and nurturing his wines from vine to bottle.

Then there are the so-called 'critter' wines, which are low-priced 'bulk' wines attractively packaged to generate the impulse purchase. These are quaffers, go down easy, and likely won't impress with anything other than their easy drinkability. Quality may vary, but the price is right.

This is as close as we get to wine as Coca-Cola. The producer of a 'critter' wine can indeed make another 'batch' simply by purchasing more wine on what is known as the 'bulk' market and blending various lots to achieve a style and weight similar to the original batch. Wineries routinely sell off their excess wine (wines that did not fit into their own blends, for whatever reason) on the bulk market. Some of this wine is very good, some isn't.

That said, even the high-volume wines produced in the millions of cases run out at some point. Imagine, then, the limits of availability on wines produced in far fewer numbers - from several hundred cases to several thousand.

There are many astute wine merchants who, try as they might, can't get their hands on many of the wines you've read about and would love to taste.

I vividly remember an example from a few years ago, when I rather enthusiastically recommended the 1997 Il Poggione Riserva Brunello di Montalcino. My attorney, a wine-loving sort, called around until he found the wine in stock at a tony wine shop in downtown San Diego.

Jubilant, he promptly ordered a full case. The problem, however, was that even this highly regarded wine merchant had only been allocated six bottles!

What to do, other than despair? Personally, I turn to the internet when I can't find what I'm looking for. As plugged in as I might be to what's currently available, there are plenty of exceptional wines that I would love to own but continue to elude me.

So, in doing research for this column, I decided to search the infamous vintage of Il Poggione Brunello on the web. Using WineZap.com and typing in the vintage, name of the wine and the special 'riserva' designation, I found one place that still had nine bottles of the 1997 Il Poggione Riserva in stock. Another wine search site, WineSearcher.com produced the same result.

With credit card in hand, I was in business.

You can even get lucky sometimes doing a simple Google search, though you'll have to be savvy enough about the web to determine whether or not the mention of the desired wine is four, five or six years old and hopelessly out of date.

But let's say you don't have a computer, or perhaps no inclination to search a wine on the web even if you do.

That's where the venerable wine merchant comes into play. The traditional brick and mortar wine shop still has its place in the world and, with so much competition from the internet, is more eager than ever to please.

The trick here is to find a wine retailer that is staffed with real honest-to-goodness wine folks, who know their stuff and are being paid to help guide you through the maze of wines stacked in virtually any busy shop.

A dedicated wine salesman can do one of two things to help you along the way. He or she can check the stacks of distributor books they have and determine whether or not the wine exists in your market and how easy or difficult it might be to obtain.

And, failing to find the wine of your desire, a sales person with any pride won't let you leave the store empty handed. Instead, they will point you to wines that are similar in style, quality and price.

After two or three trips to the same shop, you will gain a sense of confidence - or not - in that merchant's ability to steer you in the right direction.

Bottom line, however, is that you have to go out and find the great wines you've heard and read about. I can't help you there.