This article by NY Times columnist Eric Asimov is receiving lots of justifiable attention because it articulates one of the main frustrations of wine writers and their readers—many of the wines we write about are unavailable to most of our readers.
The reasons, in part, have to do with the bizarre state-by-state regulations that govern wine sales in this country, largely a holdover from the repeal of prohibition.
While the readership of The New York Times is global, wine distribution in the United States is splintered into 50 different systems, one for every state. Importers and distributors who do business in, say, New York and New Jersey, may not work in Ohio or Missouri. Or they may sell wine in great New York City shops like Chambers Street Wines, Flatiron Wines & Spirits or Crush Wine & Spirits, but not in shops in northern New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, a state wine board selects the bottles that stores may sell. And in many states, big chains like Costco or Safeway dominate wine sales.
As a result, every state, maybe every municipality, offers a different selection. Factor in that wine shops have many different rationales for how they put together their inventories, and you have a complicated Venn diagram with scores of different circles and few points of intersection.
If you’re frustrated by craziness of wine regulation here’s a good site for information about what you can do about it.
But another reason why reviewed wines are unavailable is that most wine writers prefer to write about small production wines that can’t be distributed widely because there is not enough to go around.
I love the way good wine is so different from other beverages. Its production is limited by the agricultural cycle. The variations each year in weather and other conditions make each vintage unique. A good wine is alive, and must be stored and handled carefully to preserve its life. It changes over time, in the glass as it is exposed to air and in the bottle as it ages. While we have learned much about the science of wine in the last century, much is still not understood. Great small producers embrace this sense of mystery. They are not after consistency but instead want their wines to reflect the nuances that make each year, even each moment, singular.
Mass-produced wines, for the most part, reflect a vastly different agenda. Their goal is often sameness. Vintage variations are ironed out and wines stabilized so that they can be handled and stored with minimal risk. Many people value this sort of consistency, just as they may prefer to stop at a familiar franchise restaurant rather than seek out an unknown cafe. To each his own.
Asimov concludes that we just have to settle for the vicarious pleasure of reading about wines we can’t consume.
I understand Asimov’s point. The aim of his column is not just to recommend wines but to educate his readers about regions, producers, and issues in the wine world about which they may not be familiar; and to tell interesting stories that go beyond the flavor profile of the wine. Wine writers should write about what they find fascinating, and that will usually be those obscure, wonderful finds that seldom appear on a supermarket shelf.
But I think Asimov’s approach fails to best serve the wine-drinking public. After all, the vast majority of wine drinkers consume mass-produced wine sold at supermarkets or large retail stores, and although these wines tend toward “sameness” and lack originality there are numerous exceptions worth writing about.
I don’t understand why some of those column inches in general interest newspapers and magazines are not devoted to the wine people drink most often and are easy to find. We limit our audience and frail to educate the people who can most benefit from it when we write only about wines that interest the most dedicated wine connoisseurs and reinforce the perception that wine is a snobbish pursuit.