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"The only person that loses is the customer," says Hoel. "They aren't allowed to enjoy beautiful, aged wines."
The three-tier system rattles consultant Marc Lazar. "St. Louis can never have world-class restaurants without world-class wine programs," he says. "Because of this archaic law, there are so many wines aged classic Cabernets, for example, like 1974 Heitz and 1980s Dominus that are long gone from the St. Louis market and that a new generation of collectors have never had the opportunity to try."
New restaurants face the biggest barriers, since the only way to offer old bottles is to buy them young and fill the cellar. That explains why St. Louis' most sweeping wine selections are found at long-established haunts like Riddles Penultimate Café and Wine Bar and Starrs Market, whose owners, Andy Ayers and Bud Starr, have been laying back wines for decades.
"To do what I do requires significant capital," notes Ayers. "You invest money that you could have in a CD somewhere. My bookkeeper rails at me for it."
Lazar believes the retail market should have the opportunity to buy at auction as well as through vineyards and mailing lists, the typical distribution methods for newer boutique producers.
Wine aficionados like Jeff Lehman agree. Lehman dines out several nights a week, frequently bringing his own wine from his 2,500-bottle cellar. Every Tuesday night he and ten other "wine geeks" convene at Trattoria Marcella to share bottles from their collections over a four-course dinner.
At one recent gathering, there appears a 2001 Kongsgaard chardonnay from California, a mailing-list-only wine. "There might be one or two bottles of this that gets into the state," says Lehman. He also passes a 2005 Vare Bianco. After learning that Thomas Keller's highly-acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in the heart of the Napa Valley had purchased all of George Vare's 2004 vintage, Lehman paid a visit to the winemaker last fall and managed to get on the mailing list.
In such a controlled regulatory environment, a restaurant's so-called gray-market bottles (wines purchased outside the three-tier system) are a cinch for wine buffs to recognize. That was the case when the new Busch's Grove reopened after a multimillion-dollar renovation in late 2005. The local wine trade "got in a tizzy," says one sommelier, after noticing a cult cabernet called Screaming Eagle flying off the wine list.
"If it were distributed in Missouri, everybody like us who has a really deep wine list we would all want it," explains Andy Ayers. "We all saw it and said, 'Wow! What's up here?'"
The California vineyard only produces several hundred cases a year, and distributes its wines only by mailing list. The cost: $500 a bottle. The wait to get on the mailing list is said to be seven to ten years long. On the resale market, Screaming Eagle nets $1,500 minimum.
"I've heard of horror stories in divorce battles here in St. Louis," notes Hoel, "where the couple didn't care about the house. They cared about who got to stay on the Screaming Eagle mailing list."
"It's a $2,500 bottle of wine," says Lester Miller, Busch's Grove's principal owner. "We were able to get some. We bought a few bottles, and after we opened Busch's, it was determined that Screaming Eagle is not registered [with wholesalers] in Missouri."
Miller says the restaurant subsequently withdrew the gray-market wine from its menu. Although Missouri's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) investigated the Ladue-based eatery, Busch's Grove was not cited for any violations.
That was not the case for the Wine Chateau, a Chesterfield retailer. In late 2004 ATC fined the store's owner, Brian Hartsfield, $1,500 for purchasing a 2001 Tua Rita Giusto dei Notri,a Tuscan red, directly from an importer. Says Hartsfield, "Tua Rita is one of the greatest wineries in Italy, and that was a wonder year."
Hartsfield wishes he had the freedom to buy on the gray market. "Distributors carry a lot of inventory, but they also do things they're not supposed to, like bundles: To get the good wine they make you buy the bad wine," he explains. "I personally don't see the difference between going to an auction and buying an antique piece of furniture versus a bottle of wine."
Pete Lobdell, commissioner of Missouri's ATC, says the agency rarely prosecutes violators of the three-tier rule, partly because it doesn't have the resources to seek out cheaters. Investigations only begin when rival establishments snitch on one another.
Nonetheless, the agency wants to ensure "an orderly marketplace" and keep organized crime out of the liquor business, Lobdell says. "We will fight to preserve the three-tier system."
"One more thing," complains wine consultant Marc Lazar, "to keep St. Louis in the dark ages."
The week before the Master Sommelier exam, Chris Hoel took time off from Monarch to brush up for the exam. His cramming began on a bittersweet note when a friend returned from Florida toting the dessert-wine list from Bern's Steak House, a legendary Tampa eatery that boasts of having the largest restaurant wine cellar in the world.
Hoel was ecstatic to have the menu for a study aid ("I'd pay $500 for their entire wine list!") but became uneasy when he turned to the section on Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine he thought he'd mastered. "I came across an entire Madeira sub-region I had no idea even existed. It was very upsetting."