~At least three times last week I was asked by three different people why a certain wine that was on the wine list at a restaurant in another state could not be found either at retail or in a restaurant in the person’s home state.
~For imported wines, the answer is as simple as either no distributor in your state carries the wine or the producer doesn’t market in your state.
~For domestic wines, the answer is varied.

Even though a producer may claim national distribution, it does not necessarily mean distribution in all fifty states, first, because there are no distributors that operate completely nationally—although one is perilously, for us, close to doing so—and second, because not all distributors are interested in every so-called nationally distributed product.

In some states, the state acts as distributor. This is the worst system because the states generally buy what is nationally distributed and cheap!

Within a state, retailers and restaurants have the option to buy from any distributor they choose, and because in most states a wine is allowed distribution through only one distributor, certain wines are not stocked on shelves in certain outlets or restaurants. (If what you want is distributed in your state, smart retailers can usually get you what you want, but there’s no requirement to be smart in order to be a wine retailer.) Then, some retailers or restaurants may have a bad relationship with the distributor of the wine you want— in that case, you’ll have to find another way.

In many states, small distributors survive, but what they carry is strictly within the confines of where they are licensed to operate, and within states, some products don’t make it outside major cities for a variety of reasons, not the least of which may be that they are carried only by small distributors who do not operate in all locales.

Some producers are small and  limited to local distribution.

Some producers have just enough wine to distribute in a few states and have not selected yours.

~I’m sure I have missed a few other reasons, but the main reason for this confusion of national distribution is called the “three tier” system of alcohol distribution.
~Devised ostensibly to control alcohol against potential criminality and corruption the three tier system is mainly in effect so that states can ensure their steady excise tax revenue stream by giving the collection function to a small set of business entities in their states rather than to hundreds of smaller entities.
~The system was put in place after Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, when the mealy and misinformed congress gave states a free hand. In effect, congress gave states the ability to act just like the criminals had acted during Prohibition, complete with extortionary measures that are euphemistically called licensing, fees, and regulations.
~Both the Supreme Court and the Internet make up the demolition equipment to put the three tier system to rest, but that is going to be a long slog. The system is a direct affront to a section of the U.S. Constitution that deals with unfettered commerce, but our courts have decided that alcohol, though legal, does not deserve all the cover that any other legal product deserves and gets.
~If the day arrives when the court finally opens wine to unfettered commercial access, any wine sold anywhere in the United States will be available to anyone anywhere in the United States. Still, even when that day comes, the problem with finding imported wines throughout the country may not go away.

Copyright,  Thomas Pellechia

November 2007. All rights reserved. 

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