Wine Distribution 101

Searching for a favorite wine?
Searching for a favorite wine?

Have you been searching for your favorite wine and can't find it anywhere? It often comes down to how wine is distributed in the United States. In short, politics, laws, and distribution. In most cases, wine needs to be "picked up" by a distributor to be sold legally to retailers to you can buy it. So, what's the deal with distribution and how can you figure out where you favorite wine is sold?

When Prohibition was repealed, the system for making and purchasing wine and other alcohol was shifted into three tiers: producers, distributors, and retailers. Complicating these relationships are laws regarding liquor and wine that vary from state to state.

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The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) governs this area and issues rules on everything from labeling requirements to approved names for grapes. According to Sarah Shneider of Alliance Beverage Distribution Company, states essentially make money through taxes on these items, and with hundreds of new labels and wines each year, it's hard to stand out with our help from distribution partners.

Distributors are licensed by state, and because each state has different rules, very few distributors can do business in every state. This is often why the same wine might be one price in the state it's made in and a different price when sold in another state. There are about 500 distributors nationwide. Well-known Arizona distributors include Hensley, Southern, and Alliance.

If you've ever been to a "state store," you know that sometimes all or some of the tiers are operated by the state. There are a few online models that try to combine tiers, the most famous being This site acts as distributor and retailer, allowing buyers to purchase from winemakers through the site.

Many distributors specialize in a particular type of wine, region, or vintage to focus on a niche, or as Shneider says, "nurture" new brands. And some producers partner with stores or restaurants as a private label or a "house wine," which isn't readily apparent just from looking at the label. This arrangement lends an air of exclusivity and can often save the retailer money but can leave you "high and dry" when trying to track down that wine elsewhere. But, once you've figured out it's a private label, you can likely buy it in bulk from the retailer. A good private label check out is "Acronym," which is at Fry's stores locally.

Thank goodness that today we have the trusted Google search. With the label or name of a wine, it is pretty easy to figure out who distributes it, sells it or imports it. (So whip out your iPhone.) With the suffering economy comes great customer service and unless the wine you're looking for is a private label, some boutique retailers will try to order an available wine for you to purchase. They can get in touch with their distributor, who will check their "books."

If the wine is not made in the United States, there's a line on the back label that says "imported by." It's relatively easy to look for the importer's website and send an e-mail to find out who distributes or sells it. So note a label, do detective work, and realize there are big players who determine what wine you see on the shelves.

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