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,


Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

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."

Dear Dara,

Hey! What was that you said about shady practices in wine stores? Like what?

—Baffled in Minneapolis

Dear Baffled,

Oh, here are a few. Either mistakenly or intentionally pinning positive reviews to wine bins referring to vintages, vineyards, or even wines that are entirely different from the contents of the bin. When I was speaking to various wine-world people for this story, I kept hearing about the great stranglehold that big-box stores are getting on suburban wine consumers, so I spent a day in the ritzy western suburbs checking out places like Costco and Sam's Club. Yes, it was scarring and horrible, thanks for asking. And no, I don't know whether the pumpkins piled in front of Wal-Mart come from China; I confined myself to the wine sections.

While I did find some amazing prices, particularly on liquor, I was amazed by how many pitfalls a naive wine shopper could fall into in those stores. There were plenty of instances where I saw a positive review and high score appended to a bin—but the review was for the winery's well-known Sauvignon Blanc, and the bin held sour and terrible Pinot Noir. There were also things that sounded like amazing deals but weren't, and here I'm thinking of sound-alike lesser wines by well-known wineries.

(My visit to Costco was enlivened considerably by eavesdropping. There was a creakingly old, white-haired little Q-tip of a lady who toddled up to a youngish pair of men and asked, "Do you know where the Ménage a Trois is?" They couldn't help her locate the wine from California, but they did a yeoman's job turning pink and shaking instead of laughing.)

Speaking of disreputable, there are also some independently owned wine shops that buy importer's garbage—mostly wines that have aged past their drinkability, or are bad vintages soon to be supplanted by good ones. Which stores? Disreputable ones. Why won't I tell you who they are? Because I don't want to get myself sued, and I know that their response would be that they are buying smart values; one person's spoiled wine is another's mature bargain. I can tell you that if you're a typical Minneapolis or St. Paul wine shopper who goes to reputable stores, you're not shopping there.

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