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Lines shift in the wine-shipping battle

Jon Bonne checks in on changes to laws around the nation, and readers weigh in on which wines should be reviewed.

A couple months ago, I : Do I write about wines that interest and excite me, or do I write about wines that everyone can buy?

Some of you in wine-friendly markets were dismayed that some of your fellow readers had so many problems finding recommended bottles. Wrote Loretta from Atascadero, Calif., in the wine-growing Central Coast: “I find it difficult to get into the idea that great wine is difficult to find and purchase.”

But for too many of you, it is. My feeling then was that both sorts of wines needed time in the sun , and when I asked for your thoughts, it became clear just how many of you face the other side of this dilemma: finding the wines we recommend.

Yet even in states where wine selections are strictly controlled, some of you are still eager to know about the lesser-known stuff.

Consider Jim from Harrisburg, Pa., where the state liquor board functionally controls most wine selections. (While Pennsylvania now allows wineries to ship directly to consumers, a license reportedly costs almost $1,000 and there are few, if any, takers.)

“I live in Pennsylvania and am currently unable to order wines from out of state,” he writes, “but we do have a superstore in our area that does offer several thousand varieties of wine. We are also blessed to have a knowledgeable wine expert working there. If they don't have the wine you reviewed they can offer alternatives. All wine lovers need to support the ‘little guy,’ that's were the fun is!”

Or Ed from Charlotte, N.C.: “[L]et the mass-produced wines and their makers fend for themselves (they've got the bucks).”

Larry, from Santa Maria, Calif.: “It may also be possible to find a local wine merchant who understands the character and style of a wine that he cannot get, and can recommend something similar that he does carry. Until these asinine laws change, a good way to find good wines (aside from reading columns) is to trust your palate, ask questions, and try something new.”

Yet another Pennsylvania reader described stocking up across the state line in New Jersey, said he’d rather learn about widely available wines — since that’s most of what’s easily at hand.

Even among champions of the little guys, some of you felt there were limits to obscurity. John from St. Louis, Mo., wanted a mix of both options, but felt that among relative unknowns, a wine he couldn’t find wasn’t a wine worth reading about: “[T]ry to focus on those likely to have national access, instead of regional. No point in praising a boutique wine for which there were only 600 cases.”

Fair point.

My conclusion? People use wine columns in different ways, much the same way that some people will read travel magazines to help plan their next great adventure and others will remain armchair voyagers.

Shipping laws shift
As I continue to weigh those two options, it’s worth noting that the battle lines in the wine-shipping wars have continued to shift in the past couple months. This ongoing battle, which has reached a fever pitch in the months since last May’s Supreme Court ruling that found many state’s shipping regulations unconstitutional, governs whether many wine lovers around the country will get access to many lesser-known wines.

Some recent changes:

  • In perhaps the largest shift so far this year, Florida changed course in mid-February and decided to allow wine shipments, though formal legislation is pending. Since Florida is the second-largest wine consuming state, that’s a huge change for wineries and wine lovers. Previously, unauthorized shipments were considered a felony.
  • Lawmakers in Massachusetts, another major wine-drinking state, passed a law in late Feb. over Gov. Mitt Romney’s objection that allows limited shipping for small wineries that produce under about 12,000 cases per year. Romney had proposed a more unrestricted bill and vetoed the more restrictive version, but was outvoted.
  • On Mar. 14, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill allowing any U.S. winery to ship directly to Washington drinkers. Previously, Washington — the nation’s second-largest wine-producing state — had only allowed shipments from 13 so-called “reciprocal” states, which had signed deals allowing Washington wine to be shipped to their residents.
  • Indiana lawmakers are drawing closer to a deal that would allow wineries to ship to residents, something that the state’s alcohol commission prohibited after last year’s Supreme Court ruling on wine shipments. Local wineries sued for the right to keep shipping. The proposed bill still leaves plenty of hurdles, though: It would require wineries to acquire a $100 permit, the actual purchase would have to be face-to-face and each winery would be limited to 3,000 cases. The Indianapolis Star was not a fan of this approach, saying it “could devastate a group of small but growing Indiana businesses while also restricting consumers' freedom of choice.”
  • A law that would expand wine shipments in on the books in Colorado, while another in Kentucky stands to hobble that state’s wine business if passed. The Kentucky law would require small in-state wineries to sell their wine through liquor wholesalers; currently they can sell direct to consumers thanks to a decade-old law designed to promote wine grapes as an alternative to growing tobacco. Illinois and Arizona are considering some limited shipping options, as is Kansas, though the Jayhawk State's bill contains a whole host of restrictions, including a requirement for wholesalers to handle any shipped wine.

Here's a grab bag of French and Italian options with varying availability, just to give you a sense of how random the wine-finding game can be.

Canella NV prosecco di Conegliano ($13, Empson USA): A widely available and affordable set of bubbles from a lesser-known part of Italy's Veneto region. It's in a brut style, but just a touch on the sweet side, with honey, orange peel and lemon. Balanced and well-textured, with a dense, fruity finish.

Clos Roche Blanche 2004 sauvignon Touraine ($13, Louis/Dressner): Importer Joe Dressner has a special place in his heart for this organic Loire Valley winery and its proprietors, Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet. Their latest sauvignon blanc opens with huge scents of grass and citrus, like a great New Zealand offering. But the texture is classic Loire, softer and more elegant than the Kiwi variations. Luckily, Dressner is distributing it to major markets across the country.

Yves Cuilleron 2004 syrah vin de pays des Collines Rhodaniennes ($16, Rosenthal Wine Merchant): Yves Cuilleron is one of the in France's northern Rhone, but you're likely to find this incredible value bottling only on the left and right coasts. (Cuilleron's iconoclastic importer, — whom you might have seen in “Mondovino” — does not distribute widely.) Cuilleron specializes in making “vin de pays” from vineyards that lie outside the official boundaries for such famous appellations as Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Here is beautiful French syrah: floral and highly aromatic with brine, tart cherry and white pepper. It's bright and supple, with beautiful smells built around a delicate structure, not a chunky one.

Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo 2003 “Agamium” Colline Novaresi DOC ($14, Polaner): When I discussed nebbiolo , I described it as being a potentially good value. Here's a perfect all-nebbiolo example (though one essentially limited to the New York market) from Cantalupo, perhaps the most famous winery from the Piedmontese town of Ghemme. Starts tart and tight, but after about 45 minutes, it opens with bright strawberry, vanilla, fresh mint and spring flowers. It's a perky wine, with slightly forward acidity and a tannic, textured finish. A perfect pizza wine, even if it's a bit thin in the middle.