So, government irrigation projects plus tax shelters plus cute animals equals you drowning in affordable, likable Australian critter wine.

Don't think it's always going to be like this. After two years of massive over-supply, the Australians appealed to their government for some kind of financial package to help the suffering farmers, and the government said no dice. Tens of thousands of tons of grapes were left to rot in the fields for the last harvest, and growers across Australia are "mothballing" their grape vines, pruning them back and giving them only the tiniest amount of water so that they won't produce fruit for a few years.

With the grape supply lowered, Australians expect the Australian-wine glut to come to an end sometime in 2007, and we may well look back on the time when all the cheap wine was Australian as a weird historical blip. Right now only half a percent of Australian wines sold in this country retail for more than $15, and Australia is basing its future on getting that number up. If you like cheap and cheerful critter wine, buy it now.


Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

However, if you hate cheap and cheerful critter wine, but enjoy irony, consider this: Australia right now is desperately trying to try to figure out how to be France, with the big-ticket wines, vineyards that sell out their entire production before a bottle is ever filled (ever heard of wine futures?), and such. Meanwhile, France is desperate to figure out how to make a French Yellow Tail, as they have had a wine glut of their own; they've been reduced to turning hundreds of millions of bottles of basic wine into ethanol to fuel cars. Look for cheap French varietal wine experiments in your local liquor store over the next few years, as they attempt to horn in on Australia's territory. What's French for critter? We'll find out.

Dear Dara,

Why does Surdyk's have so many more Rieslings than everybody else? How do they get those Surdyk's-label Rieslings? Moreover, why is it the selection in wine shops is all so radically different?

—Riesling Lover in Minneapolis

Dear Riesling Lover,

Prohibition haunts us still. You remember Prohibition, right? With the flappers, the speakeasies, and the way alcohol was banned? Well, when Prohibition ended, the government instituted something known as the three-tier system, which was designed to make sure that there could be no monopolies in liquor. The three tiers—the alcohol maker, alcohol middleman (the distributor or importer), and the final alcohol seller (the store)—all had to be separate businesses, and none could be owned by another. This bit of regulation ultimately meant that the wine shop is the freest market there is: Minnesota has some 40-odd wine importers and distributors, as well as a few liquor distributors, and a host of heavy-hitting independent liquor stores.

This means that we have competition—true competition, not the illusion of competition you get in, say, a big-box store where soft-drink makers pay for prime shelf space and invent new products just to keep the other guys from being seen. The three-tier system is what allows our independent liquor stores to have such extensive selections: Surdyk's has more Rieslings because they want to, and no one can stop them or has cared to outbid them. It's the same reason that Haskell's has more Burgundy, Solo Vino and Sam's Wine Shop have more Spanish selections, and Hennepin Lake Liquors has more California stars.

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."

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