It's the best of times for wine lovers, but it's not the best of times for many brand lovers.
A combination of several variables in the old supply-demand formula and upheaval in the local distributor ranks has created some often-gaping shelf holes at local stores.
It was enough to prompt Edina Liquors' Steve Grausam to write a July 24 post on the city's website, apologizing to customers "for not always having the product you like or want. ... In my 25 years at Edina Liquor I have never seen supply issues this bad."
Particularly problematic, retailers say, are popular bulk brands such as Mionetto Prosecco and FishEye and Jacob's Creek pinot grigio. "I've been out of Jacob's Creek since the beginning of July," Grausam said last week. "It gets real frustrating when you've built a brand like that."
The troubles, which Grausam predicts will continue, reach all the way up the supply chain. Two straight cold growing seasons in California reduced the grape crops significantly. The balky economy has prompted many large bottlers to scale back production. Rather than let pallets of wine stack up in their warehouses, wholesalers are filling orders on demand, and often find they can't get what they want from California.
The situation has been exacerbated locally by distributor churn. The nation's largest wholesaler, Southern Wine & Spirits, moved into the market in late 2010 and recently swallowed up another large operation, Quality. The big boys have been duking it out over brands, with many large ones (Yellow Tail, Chateau Ste. Michelle) changing hands in recent months.
Those transitions affect supplies of both people (scores of sales reps are out of work) and products. "Portfolios have been realigning," said Rick Anderson, wine buyer at France 44, "and whenever this happens, there are breaks in continuity."
Mike Dombrow, wine buyer for Sunfish Cellars, noted, "There are lots of things that I just let go of because I no longer know who to buy it from."
Consumers who develop fierce loyalty to certain brands are contributing to the shortages. One large wholesaler told me he has enough pinot grigio to fill Lake Calhoun, but not always the most-in-demand labels.
"I hear inexpensive Clever Name Field Blends are getting nailed," said Mitch Zavada, at South Lyndale Liquors. "Fewer grapes mean higher price means dead brand. There's lots of brand loyalty in these categories, so some customers have been irritated."
That makes this the classic obstacle-that-becomes-an-opportunity, a little thing called branching out or "try it, you'll almost certainly like it." Winemongers such as Zavada and Dombrow are pointing customers toward alternatives to their favorites (see Wine of the Week).
And even with a few bare spots on their shelves, these stores contain more viable options from around the world than ever before.
Bill Ward • firstname.lastname@example.org