Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

But back to Surdyk's. I talked to Michael Wirzylo, who works the floor at the Nordeast liquor store, and he told me a little more about how it works. The store is the only retailer in Minnesota with the right to buy wines from Terry Thiese, a prominent importer, and from Selbach-Oster, a German estate and negociant. (Negociant means a seller and packager of other estates' wines.) In sum, Surdyk's is the exclusive Minnesota retail (but not restaurant) seller of many of Germany's preeminent wines.

Of course, in exchange for these exclusive rights, the store must buy a certain amount of wine. Another sort of exclusive is arranged when the owner of a restaurant or wine shop finds an obscure wine, a rare one, or simply a wine not represented locally, and arranges for an importer to bring it in. These two sorts of exclusives, based on either volume and contracts or unusual taste, are why you, Baffled, never see the same wine twice: There literally are wines that are found just here, or just there. Comparing the wine lists, at, say Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and La Belle Vie is a good example, as both have many exclusive wines found in no local retail store, wines derived from the twin streams of their taste and contractual negotiations.

As for Surdyk's private-label Riesling, it's made for the store as a courtesy by the importer Martin Skurnik, who does so much business with Surdyk's it's worth his while.

Why Surdyk's likes Rieslings enough to go to all this trouble is another story. "There are so many of those things, the same wines masquerading under different labels, the same juice in different bottles, that it doesn't appeal to people who really care about wine," says Wirzylo. "However, if you are interested in artisanal items, artisanal foods and such, and concerned about going local, about wine that has a history and a place, then German Riesling is the most affordable example of that wine type. Where else can you get something picked by hand, from a single site, and costing, for a Kabinett Riesling, between $10 and $20? If you wanted a similar Cabernet [Sauvignon] that fit that description— grown from a single vineyard, exhibiting qualities of terroir, handpicked—you'd pay three to five times more."

Surdyk's is not the only local store to have such contracts. Haskell's, MGM Liquors, the wine shop at Buon Giorno Italia in Lilydale, and many others all have their own exclusives. This is why real wine obsessives shop at several stores. The legacy of Prohibition, the three-tier system, and a world of true competition without monopolies mean that it's actually impossible for one store to have it all.

Dear Dara,

Hey, did you forget about me? Seriously, they don't sell all 2,000 wines in the store, do they?

—Baffled in Minneapolis

Oh, Dear Baffled,

I know where you're coming from. We are all so used to the wicked ways of retail, the way the produce in the supermarket is a loss generator set out to lure you in to the more profitable regions, the couture fashion shows put on with the goal not of selling clothing, but of generating sales of plastic sunglasses and perfume. I know where you're coming from, but while there are plenty of shady practices in wine stores, having aisles of decoy wines is not one of them.

I called up one of the Twin Cities' favorite mom-and-pop wine stores, Sutler's in Stillwater, and talked to Bill Abrahamson, the store's wine buyer, about the whys and wherefores of large inventories. "Like any other person selling anything, inventory has a cost," Abrahamson told me. "And we really do have the wines to sell, and not for any other reason. Here we've got about 10,000 square feet and 2,500 labels, and I'm amazed every single day people come in, "Do you have X, Y, or Z"? and I have to say, 'No, but I have this and that and this.' If someone comes in and wants a Bandol Rosé, a Saumur red, a Cab-Shiraz from Victoria, I have to have one. I might not have the specific one they ask for, but I have a good choice."

Are people really that specific, they want a Cab-Shiraz from Victoria? "They sure are," Abrahamson says. "We're up against all the big-box stores out here, and they've changed the wine business. You go into your Costcos, Sam's Clubs, and such—they use Nielsen ratings to pick the top-selling wines, and then they discount those to a point [where] we can't compete. But [when] you shop at those stores, it's the wine equivalent of the top-rated Nielsen TV shows—predictable, and you deserve what you get. For me, for people who shop here, it's much more. I don't know how many years I have on the planet, but I know there is a world of untried wine choices waiting for me, and I want choices, good choices.

"It's very unromantic, the way this industry is going," Abrahamson continues. "It's heading to this place where we're selling widgets instead of beautiful craft wines and beers. But there are still people who value unique items, so there's a reason for us to carry red wines from Austria, Lustau Sherries, and so forth."

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