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Dear Dr. Vinny,

When a new wine is released, how long does it take to make it to retail wine stores?

—Susan, Minneapolis

Dear Susan,

When a wine is “released,” that means the winery has made it available for sale somewhere—either at a retail store, restaurant, mailing list, tasting room, or some combination of these outlets. But how, when and if you’ll actually see a wine at retail depends not only on the strategy of the winery, but on many variables in the distribution channel along the way. You may never even have a chance to purchase some small-production, highly sought-after wines unless you hunt them down.

Some wineries never release their wines to retail outlets, instead focusing on tasting-room business and/or a mailing-list clientele, where they interact directly with their customers. This creates more work for them to deal with all of those individual transactions, so it’s usually reserved for smaller wineries. One of the complications of direct sales is that it’s illegal for a winery to ship directly to consumers in many U.S. states.

Plenty of wine is also sold “on premise”—in restaurants and wine bars where wine is purchased and consumed in the same place. I often see rare and small-production wines on these lists, which makes sense, because the prices are often marked up above retail, and if you know you can find the same wine around the corner for a fraction of the price, you’d be less likely to order it. But even if a wine is released and sold to a restaurant, you won’t know exactly when it will appear on the list—they might be waiting to sell the previous vintage, for example.

Likewise, when a wine is released for retail sale, in most cases it has to go through the so-called “three-tier” system, where a winery sells its wine to a distributor, who then sells it to a retailer before it can be sold to you. As you might imagine, there can be delays along the way, and then once the bottle is in a wine shop or grocery store, it’s up to that establishment to stock it on the shelves—if it does at all. Much of the shelf space in wine shops is reserved for larger-volume bottlings, and the rarer stuff may stay hidden in the back room, sold only to loyal or high-rolling customers.

—Dr. Vinny

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