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Buying Good Wine – An Inside Tip for Imports

March 29, 2011

In wine classes I’m frequently asked how to find good wine in retail stores. Here is a great tip for selecting good imported wine, whether from France, Germany, Italy, Spain (or other Old World countries) or even from New World collections from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina or Chile.

The reason that this little trick doesn’t work for domestic wines is because it’s all about the importer. The importer is the company that buys wines from overseas, negotiates price, quantity and shipping and then brings it into the US. At this point, many importers then sell the wine to distributors who then sell it to the restaurants and stores in the states in which they are licensed to work.

This “Three Tier” system (importer, distributor and retailer) is much loved and much maligned by different sides of the wine trade, but is set-up by law to help regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages. There are some importers who are also distributors, sometimes in just some states and not others. Most importers aren’t in the distribution business at all, with it’s necessary infrastructure and knowledge of diverse markets.

Instead, they focus solely on doing what they do best: finding good wine and buying it from the source.

So next time you are contemplating the purchase of wine from overseas, turn the bottle over and look on the back label. There you will almost surely find the name of the importer. When you find a wine you really like, take note not only of the grape variety, the region it comes from and the price, but also who imported the wine.

It’s likely that if you like some of the selections from a given importer, you might like their style. This would allow you to explore some of their other imports, increasing your odds of finding other producers that you’ll like.

The other time when a little knowledge of importers helps is when you are faced with a couple of choices of similar wines (same region, variety and vintage) but you don’t know either producer or their style. When faced with this situation, I always look to see who the importer is. If it’s a name I recognize and respect, then my choice is made!

Most of the smaller importers that I look for are usually country-specific. Here are a few well-known and well-regarded importers and the country or regions for which they’re known:

Kermit Lynch – French wines

Becky Wasserman – Burgundy and Champagne

Micheal Skurnik – France, Italy

Terry Theise – Germany & Austria

Savio Soares – Germany & Austria

Domenico Selections – Italy

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