Readers and friends often ask how the retail alcohol sales process works. They want a look behind the curtain of an industry that isn’t always transparent and is certainly wildly inconsistent. Frequent questions are: how do wine and spirits’ shops select their products? Where do retail stores buy their wines, or how are wines and spirits priced? Why are local laws incredibly variable between political jurisdictions?                                                                                      

Every state and political jurisdiction has the power to levy laws about the sale of alcoholic beverages for off- and on-premise sales. This practice goes back to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 when the federal government returned the rights to govern alcohol sales to local political jurisdictions, including states, counties and even individual towns.  It was arguably a terrible mistake because the result was a hodgepodge of laws and regulations regarding alcohol sales that vary drastically across the United States. Some jurisdictions allow limited alcohol sales in grocery stores, others funnel all sales through government-sponsored ABC stores. In my home state of Maryland, several counties act as distributors and profit handsomely.

There are some striking anachronisms. The Jack Daniels distillery is located in a dry county in Tennessee -- one of 26 dry counties in the state.  Bourbon County, Kentucky, the home of the ubiquitous Jim Beam bourbon is also a dry county. Although Maryland has fairly liberal laws pertaining to alcohol, retail off-premise alcohol sales on Sunday are prohibited in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and individuals or companies are only allowed to have one retail license per entity.  And, liquor can't be sold on Election Day or within a certain perimeter of churches.                                

More states follow a byzantine but vaunted three-tier system that brings profits to each tier but also raises the cost of liquor to consumers. In the three-tier system producers of alcoholic beverages (wineries, breweries and distillers) sell their products to wholesalers, who then in turn sell them to retailers for sale to the public. Some critics of this system claim  that forcing retail stores to purchase their products from wholesalers limits the availability of choices to consumers. To address that concern many states have finally allowed consumers to order wine directly from the producers -- until now, those states made out-of-state shipments a felony. If you are lucky enough to reside in one of those states, you can openly participate in wine-of-the-month clubs and even ship wine home after visiting a winery.

However, the three-tier system has unwittingly blocked many wine producers from getting their product represented. Distributors simply don't have the time or desire to monkey around with small producers whose wines don't sell quickly or require a lot of maintenance. This is particularly the case with wines made in their home state (excepting California, Oregon, Washington and New York). In my home state of Maryland, it is often hard for Maryland wine producers to find a distributor to represent them. That's why giving them the ability to ship their wines directly to consumers has been a breakthrough.

On the positive side of the argument, competition among wholesalers has created an amazingly wide choice of alcoholic beverages that to stock in their stores or order for consumers.  Distributors post their prices to consumers in a monthly Beverage Journal. Most retailers mark up wine, for instance, by 50 percent. Restaurant markup can be as high as 300 percent. Consumers are not allowed to subscribe to the Journal, so they don't really know how much their local store is marking up the products they sell.

An army of sales people from wholesale suppliers call on licensed retail stores every week, hoping to place their products there. Tasting their products, reading industry publications and considering requests from consumers are all used by retailers to make choices for their limited shelf space. Retailers are conscious of what will sell. A gewürztraminer, for instance, may  be appealing to them but not to consumers.  I've noticed a great difficulty finding Alsace wines in my community and retailers explain that they just sit on the shelf much too long. 

Consumers understand that the retail wine business is there to make a profit and that making more money through sales is a selfish goal. So when a sales person leads you to a wine, is it because it's a good wine -- or because he's trying to dump the wine or because his profit margin on that bottle is higher? Some stores directly imports obscure wines that bypass the distributor and thus save money for the merchant. The sales staff is encouraged to sell these wines first because there is a higher profit margin on them.  Some are good wines, but the motive to sell them is primarily profit-driven.

Buyers need to depend on the sales staff to find a wine -- the staff is mostly educated and experienced. But, caveat emptor still applies.


I had an interesting phone conversation with Gabriele Tacconi of Ruffino, one of the people behind Chianti Classico's effort to create another tier above its riserva designation.  It's been a year since Gran Selezione has operated and more producers are signing on -- even though its value is questionable. 

To qualify for the Gran Selezione, the wine has to be aged 30 months -- 6 months more than riserva, be made entirely of estate-grown grapes and have at least 13 percent alcohol and 80 percent sangiovese. The new tier acknowledges the region's biggest flaw -- that there isn't much to distinguish the wine from this vast 100-square-mile region. Until now, wines could be made from purchased grapes, blend with purchased grapes and rarely from a single vineyard. To make it riserva, a producer just had to take the same blend that went into his regular wine and age it another 6 months.


The problem with the Gran Selezione is that it still doesn't focus on a single vineyard and thus not so much on terroir.  Tacconi says the changing terrain of Chianti Classico makes that difficult. If the classification required the grapes come from one vineyard to demonstrate terroir, the production would be small. So when you see Gran Selezione on the Ruffiono Riserva Ducale Oro, you really don't know what part of Chianti Classico it came from. And, you won't taste it. In fact, all you get is another 6 months of aging.

He says 45 percent of the wines submitted for judging in Gran Selezione are rejected but it may be because the judges don't know where the wines are coming from.  A wine from one region may be characteristically light, for instance, but a judge may reject it because it doesn't have the body he's used to.

Toccani admits the classification needs further review and he thinks the region at least should be divided into three so that the consumer can distinguish a Gran Selezione made near Radda from one made near Greve, for instance.

That sounds like an improvement to me. But, better, would be a classification that mirrors what Alsace is trying to accomplish. It is proposing to add a premier category to its grand cru. With that, consumers would know that the vineyards have been judged to be of grand cru or premier quality -- much like what you get from Burgundy.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg freely admitted that she had too much wine and nodded off during President Obama's State of the Union address.  While I'm sure a number of teetotalers will find cause to criticize the inebriation of someone n such a lofty position, I'm more concerned about her choice in wine. 

Ginsberg's admission was probably exaggerated. Her usual drink is reportedly water but she felt the pre-address dinner was fitting for a wine. And when fellow Justice Kennedy brought in Opus One, well, she couldn't refuse. The second (and third?) glass was even better.  Given the moment -- and Ginsberg's age of 81 -- she should be forgiven for falling asleep.  Kudos to her for laughing it off.

But Opus One? Hmmm, not my favorite wine.  I have always felt Opus One hasn't lived up to its reputation -- never did.  I've had an occasionally good bottle, but struggle to justify its $100-plus cost.   Of course, that applies to most California wine.  But I've had much better in this price category. Maybe the Supreme Court will agree to review my case.


With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, we imagine that many of you are scrambling to figure out some way to express your love for someone on a day that restaurants and Hallmark are telling you is the most romantic of the year.  Because of the hype, a lot is expected of us. The burden is to come up with something your mates can talk about to their friends and co-workers. Oh, the pressure!

Even if you haven’t given this a thought yet, there’s still time to plan something romantic for two.

If you haven’t yet made a restaurant reservation, don’t even try unless your spouse or friend loves  the drive-through at Burger King. Instead, consider an intimate dinner at home. Chances are it will be a lot cheaper, more personal and definitely more private.

Even for the harried, a dinner at home can be simple and elegant at the same time. For instance, sushi and a pair of chopsticks is a thing of beauty. Add a bottle of rose champagne, a red rose, a candle, and, ta-da, you have romance. Bring home a bucket of KFC chicken, though, and you have no romance. You have a problem.

If you know how to boil water, you know how to make lobster. Nothing says romance and luxury like a lobster and melted butter. Add a bottle of that champagne and romance becomes more than just food.

Even amateur cooks can handle a dinner with a little imagination and a lot of self-confidence. If you can boil water, you can pan-fry a juicy steak, bake a potato and toss a salad. Think about it: simple, carefree and bound to earn kudos for effort. Add a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon.

Imperfections in the food can be overcome by perfections in the wine.  At least you don’t have to make that.  But the wine is important to set the mood, complement the food and leave a good impression.

Consider starting the night with sparkling wine or champagne. If price is a consideration, Spanish cava or prosecco brings bubbles to the glass without making a dent on the weekly budget. You can buy these in splits for an aperitif or buy a full bottle to serve through the meal.

If you have the bucks to impress, consider Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial ($65), an elegant and sensual champagne with spirit and panache.  Subtle raspberry and strawberry notes would make a delicious splash to the occasion.

Otherwise, sparkling wines we recommend are Gruet Rose from New Mexico and Domaine Chandon Rose.

Here are some novel still wines to consider:

·       Casillero del Diablo Devil’s Collection Red ($15). If you’re feeling in a devilish mood this  year, what better way to start the occasion that a “Devil’s Collection”? The red is a blend of carmenere, Cabernet sauvignon and syrah. If your love prefers white wine, the white blend includes sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer.  The red is silky and ripe; the white is fresh and citrusy.

·       SAVED Red Wine California 2012 ($22).  This is a collaboration of artist Scott Campbell and winemaker Clay Brock, formerly of Wild Horse and Estancia wineries.  The label alone is worth the money, which is what you would expect from an artist. Named after his tattoo studio in Brooklyn, SAVED represents the life of the artist. It is an amalgamation of mixed red grapes and displays a fruit-forward, jammy style.

·       Loveblock Central Otago Pinot Noir 2012 ($37). This New Zealand pinot noir comes from Kim Crawford’s “Someone’s Darling” vineyard. How perfect is that for Valentine’s Day? Lots of sweet strawberry flavors and hints of mushrooms and oak.

·       Rocca Sveva Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso DOC 2009 ($22). This is a beautifully styled ripasso. The underlying fruit is classic Valpolicella: 70 percent corvina, 25 percent rondinella, and 5 percent molinara. The fermenting must spent 11-14 days comingled with spent amarone skins and seeds resulting in a round and smooth wine that exhibits a sly backbone.  Great value.

·       Bodegas Alto Moncayo Veraton Garnacha 2011 ($25). We discovered this Spanish beauty at a New Year’s Eve celebration. It was remarkable in its body and depth. Very floral aromatics with intense blackberry and vanillin oak flavors.

·       Valley of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($35).  We loved this delicious, approachable cabernet from Sonoma County. Typical of the region, it has forward cherry notes, full and soft mouthfeel, and hints of licorice and leather. Winemaker David Marchesi has cut back vineyard yield to concentrate on quality. The wine shows it.


In an effort to raise profits for wineries, the Russian government is about to set a minimum price consumers will pay. Only in Russia....

According to Decanter magazine, legislation recently passed requires retailers to charge a minimum price for all still and sparkling wine. The price would be about $1.50 to $2.50 in American dollars. The idea is raise profits for wine-growers but also tackle the country's problem with counterfeit wine. Such a law was passed to curb counterfeit vodka.  

Most likely, vodka now will be cheaper than wine, thus escalating that country's problems with alcoholism.



I was recently reading an article by Libby Kane in Business Insider about advice from a sommelier about how to find the right wine for your pocketbook. In the article, Jorn Kleinhaus, owner of The Wine Elite Sommelier Co., advises consumers to think first about the wine growing region. I thought the advice was brilliant -- maybe more obvious than I had thought to give others who often ask the question about what's a good wine for under $20.

So here's my spin on his advice.

If your budget allows prices of, say, under $15, then look to Argentina, Chile, Australia and some parts of Italy.  Here you will normally find wines made from grapes you may not recognize but are nonetheless delicious. Argentina's malbecs and white torranttes are delicious. Chile makes inexpensive sauvignon blanc, carmeneres and cabernet sauvignon. Of course, Australia is known for its delicious, jammy shiraz wines.

In the $15-25 range, you can explore many of the decent wines from California and Washington state -- merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon. Look for the big producers, like Kendall-Jackson, Columbia Crest, Gallo, Trinchero.  New Zealand is also making good sauvignon blanc at this price. In Italy, you can buy wines from Tuscany, Umbria, and even the Piedmonte -- don't be frightened by the grape varieities. Even the Alsace region of France produces some crisp white wines in this price category.

Over $25, you can consider some of the better California wines, some of the lesser Oregon pinot noirs, good Chianti, and even the unclassified wines from Bordeaux. You are also able to afford New Zealand pinot noir, many excellent wines from southern France and the Rhone Valley.  Your choices are much, much greater at this price range -- and so is the complexity and quality of the wine. Sorry, but that's my opinion.

If you are able to buy wines over, say, $50, you don't need anyone's advice. But, for those who dream, you can now step foot in France. Burgundies for instance, start at $50 and can easily exceed $100. Good French chablis starts around $50 a bottle. The best of Bordeaux -- first-, second- and even third-growths -- start about the same place. In Italy, you can consider Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino. 

In short, you can narrow down your choices -- and there are so many -- by thinking first of the region, second of the grape variety you like and, third, your willingness to experiment.


It takes a lot to get my juices going in wine.  But that was the occasion the other night when my wife and I sipped a 2012 Sea Smoke Blanc de Noir sparkling wine -- a fitting kick-off on the eve of a warm-weather vacation.  Not everyone is familiar with this classy pinot noir producer because it's not easy to find the wines.

Made in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, Sea Smoke has been around only since 1999. It didn't take them long to establish all estate-grown pinot noirs as among the best and most exclusive in California.  I have craved them whenever I travel to the West Coast and occasionally when I find them on a restaurant wine list.  They aren't cheap, but nowadays few quality pinot noirs are.

This sparkling wine, however, was simply incredible. It is proof that to make a good sparkling wine, you need to start with good grapes. Sea Smoke embraces biodynamics and low yields. The grapes are grown in high elevations and face south.  This kind of exposure manages to produce great phenolics.

The Blanc de Noir is heavy on the palate because of the preference for pinot noir grapes. But it's hardly clumsy.  Black cherry flavors and spice dominate the flavor profile, but the complexity of the wine is what makes this so outstanding. I could not put it down.

You may have a hard time finding it locally. But I recommend you get on their mailing list. You can order wines direct from the winery -- if your states allows it -- and there is no commitment on quantity or membership.  


Many of the 76 wines stolen in the Christmas Day heist at the French Laundry were recovered -- in Greensboor, NC, of all places.

Greensboro police have confirmed that it recovered some of Romanee-Conti and Screaming Eagle wines in presumably a wine collector's cellar. No details were provided, so I don't know how the wine ended up in North Carolina or whether the collector has been charged. However, California police and the French Laundry's owner believe it was in inside job. There was a small window of opportunity when employees weren't in the restaurant. And, the thieves were very selective in what they included in the $300,000 heist. 

The French Laundry, located in Yo untville, Calif, is one of the most exclusive restaurants in wine country. Reservations take months to get.  Some of the wines stolen had values up to $15,000.

I'm dying to hear the details.


I found an orphaned bottle of 2008 Louis Martini Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon in the cellar.  The 7-year-old wine had endured its hibernation, I'm happy to report. Of course, the Martini name exudes respect even though it has been owned by E&J Gallo since 2002.  Established in 1933, the  once family-owned winery became synonymous with quality cabernet sauvignon.  It even has a pinot noir clone named after Martini.  It fell on hard times and then fell behind the pack as new labels emerged.  However, the 2008 shows that it still has good sources for Napa and Sonoma county grapes.

The wine had a soft texture, its tannins a faint memory.  But the fruit was exquisite: black cherries, plum, olives, cinnamon and cloves.  It required contemplation and left me pleasant surprised even when the tasted it on the second day.

I paid $25 for the 2008 five or so years ago. Today the Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for about $34.  In the wide world of California cabernet, this is still the steal it was in 2008.  If you are cellaring wine on a modest budget, this is a winner.


A recent market report unveiled at Vin Expo predicts that in the next four years Germany will overtake Italy as the third largest wine consuming nation.  Don't worry, though, the United States will remain numero uno.

The report by market researchers The IWSR shows the shifting sands in the world wine trade that is at least a decade old. For a long time, Italy and France held the top two positions in wine consumption. Italy still holds the lead in per capita consumption -- Italians drink more per person than anyone else -- but as a nation they drink less.  For many older generations, wine at the table was more popular than water -- no matter the persron's age. However, water improved over time and younger generations failed to embrace the wine tradition.  Predictions are that Italy's wine consumption will sink 5 percent over the next four years.

On the other hand, Germany -- more of a beer-drinking nation -- will experience growth. Experts attribute that to their thirst for champagne. Now, there's a twist. Local sekt, the German name for sparkling wine, is popular in a ciountry that has produced more sweet riesling than any other European country.

According to the report, the U.S. will strengthen its lead over France. Consumption here is expected to rise by 5.5 percent in the next four years. In recent years U.S. consumers have shown a keen interest in trying different wines. And, wines have gained strength over other alcoholic beverages.

I'm not sure what all of this means to us, but it's nice to know the U.S. is number one .


When asked to declare our favorite grape variety we are often torn. Cabernet sauvignon occupies more space in our cellar than any other grape. Rhone grape varieties – syrah and grenache – are a close second. However, pinot noir could be our favorite grape variety even though we don’t have a lot of it.

Pinot noir’s struggle to find a spot in wine cellars is due in part to its relatively expensive position in the market. Burgundies as a lot have become more expensive than Bordeaux and it’s hard to find a decent pinot noir from Oregon for under $50. Buying them by the case is a stretch for most pocketbooks and not all of them do well with age.

But if you can pay the price, there is no better time to explore West Coast pinot noir. In recent weeks, we have ploughed through a lot of delicious pinot noir and were truly excited by what we found.Those that sell for $35 are actually a bargain in the pinot noir field.

Here follows a list of stand-outs:

·         Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2012 ($55). Always a favorite of ours, this pinot noir has the guts to stand up to a lot of different foods. Big tannins give meaning to the fresh strawberry and raspberry flavors.

·         Crossbarn Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2012 ($35).  Made under the direction of Paul Hobbs, this pinot noir – and anything else from Crossbarn – is a big success.  We loved the copious and layered cherry fruit with an earthy personality. Hints of cola and spice make it a delicious drink.

·         MacMurray Estate Vineyards Central Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($23). Sporting a new label, this venerable producer known for its good values has produced another reliable wine from the broad, almost undistinguished Central Coast. Simple, straight-forward and packed with layered fruit, this is a wine you can serve to a crowd without breaking the bank.

·         Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir 2012 ($60). We loved the elegance of this beautiful pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills. Good complexity and balance with bright cherry fruit and forest floor notes.

·         Inman Family Wines Russian River Valley Pinot Noir OGV 2010 ($65). We have loved these wines ever since we visited with Kathleen Inman, the winemaker and head bottle-washer of this small  Sonoma County winery. Truly a family operation, it exudes love and attention from vineyard to bottle. This wine is from its prized Olivet Grange Vineyard (it couldn't use "Grange" on the label because of Penfolds trademark). Its character and brilliance earns the wine the top seed in the Inman family lineup. Light in color, it has elegance and bright raspberry and cranberry flavors. Inman is eco-friendly and even the reserve pinot noir comes with a screw cap.

·         Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2012 ($30). Easily one of the best values in Oregon pinot noir, the 2012 Stoller is a killer. At this price you can afford a couple of bottles for the holiday feast and be proud of serving a balanced American pinot noir.  It has a floral nose and ripe raspberry and black cherry flavors and a good dose of cloves.

·         Talbott Diamond T Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($52). Robb Talbott has succeeded in crafting a series of elegant pinot noirs and chardonnays that have identified him as among the best in these categories. This Monterey pinot noir shows off rich cherry and plum flavors with soft tannins and long finish.

·         J. Lohr Falcon's Perch Pinot Noir 2012 ($17).  You'll love the generous aromatics and flavors of this opulent pinot noir from Monterey County.   It shows off a floral and dried herbs aroma with jammy cherry flavors and long finish.

·         Complicated Pinot Noir 2013 ($20). Well, it's not complicated. Simple cherry flavors, good balance and excellent value. It is made by a new venture operated by Carlo Trinchero and Josh Phelps – childhood buddies and off-spring of two respected wine-making families.

·         Niner Wine Estates Edna Valley Pinot Noir 2012 ($35).  Wow, what a mouthful of pure pinot noir.  Very floral with layered, fruit-forward flavors of sweet black cherries, clove, and cranberries.

·         Amici Pinot Noir Sonoma County Russian River Valley 2012 ($35). This complex pinot noir shows an earthy cherry nose with flavors of dried cherries, red raspberries and a hint of cinnamon. Beautifully balanced and is delicious.

·         Migration Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2012 ($38). Another winner from the Duckhorn family of wines. Cherry, strawberry and mocha dominate the nose, and mouth with a delicious spice note on the finish. Try this with chicken, salmon or pork dishes. Mmm.             

·         Byron Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($45). This Santa Maria Valley producer has been making good pinot noir for decades and the Julia's Vineyard version has been a consistent winner.  Earthy character with generous black cherry fruit and a dash of spice.



The Horse Heaven Hills appellation is one of the largest grape growing regions in Washington state, y et we doubt many wine enthusiasts are even aware of it. Supplying a quarter of the state’s wine, Horse Heaven Hills has gained a lot of respect for producing some of the Northwest’s best wines.

This year the region is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. It was named by cowboy James Kinney for the abundance of grass available to his horses. Don and Linda Mercer were the first to plant grapes in the region. The first winery, opened in 1983, was Columbia Crest, which still today is making excellent, inexpensive wines.

Here are some wines from Horse Heaven Hills that we recommend to get acquainted:

·         Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($14). From a reputable appellation of the Columbia Valley, this Horse Heaven Hills cabernet is a great value with ripe cherry and blueberry notes. It is blended with merlot, malbec and petit verdot.

·         Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay Reserve 2013 ($32). Tropical fruit notes dominate this smooth chardonnay. Notes of vanilla and spice.

·         H3 Horse Heaven Hills Merlot 2012 ($15). Another great value in merlot, this wine offers the aromas and flavors that you expect from the grape variety. Loads of ripe cherry flavors and a soft mouthfeel.

·         Coyote Canyon H/H Estates Michael Andrews Red Reserve 2010 ($38). A blend of tempranillo and graciano, this is quite a delicious treat.  Round black berry fruit with doses of mineral, toffee and tobacco. Full bodied.

·         Alexandria Nicole Cellars Quarry Butte Destiny Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($25).  Other than having to clean up this confusing label, there is nothing wrong with this delightfully ripe and delicious blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Loaded with black cherry flavors, vanilla and cassis.

·         McKinley Springs Malbec ($24). It’s hard not to enjoy this smooth, jammy malbec with blueberry notes and dashes of clove, pepper and cinnamon.