Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wine in the Grocery Store?

Taylor, blogger extraordinaire behind Mac & Cheese, left a comment in passing recently:

“....I did wine… in Wilmington! Yay! If only they (DE) could get wine in the grocery store.”

Her comment got me thinking. Would it really be a good thing if wine were available in grocery stores in Delaware? Or more precisely, is it a good thing for wine to be available in grocery stores in general? I’m not thinking of the small, gourmet oriented shops that like to play things down by putting “grocery” in their name. I’m talking about the big guys: Acme, Giant, Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion and their equivalents throughout the rest of the country and the world. And yes, I’m also thinking of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two big players that market themselves as small guys that care.

My real point is this: to what extent are people willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of convenience? I’m all for being able to walk into the super market, grab a cart and slalom the aisles for a quart of motor oil, some laundry detergent, a couple of pounds of dried pasta and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. When it comes to meat, fruit, vegetables and cheese however, I’ve become increasingly unwilling, over the years, to settle for what’s available at the grocery store. Produce is worth going the extra mile: to the local farmers markets for seasonal veggies and fruit, to a quality butcher or fishmonger for meat and seafood, to great shops like Downtown Cheese, Murray’s or Talula’s Table to satisfy a cheese craving.

I look at wine in the same way. At its best, wine is a natural, living thing. It’s an agricultural product. It’s produce. And I don’t want to buy my produce from a shop that treats it like just another SKU on the shelf. I want it to come from a purveyor who knows and cares about what they’re selling. That’s just not going to happen at the local Safeway. Nor is it going to happen at the grocers and discounters like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Costco that have developed some reputation for their wine selections. Even if there’s a certified “wine expert” in the home office somewhere, their purchasing decisions will still be driven by cost-per-unit, brand recognition or “Can I put a 92-point shelf talker on it?” decisions. And even in a world where a new wine blog pops up every day, where wine courses are offered at every community center and where Robert Parker has become a household name, it’ll be a long time before we can expect to see a sommelier working the floor at every grocery store.

So, support your local, independent wine shop. Better yet, find a few shops that have good selections, care about what they sell and how they choose it, and employ knowledgeable and helpful staff. Then go out of your way to support them. It’ll be worth the inconvenience.


Taylor said...

Oi…I mistyped on the comment you referenced. I should have said I “dig” Moore Bros., as it’s less than a mile from my house and one of my main squeezes for wine in Wilmington. The staff there always helps me when I have a silly request like…I want a wine that smells like gardenias.

I’m certainly not suggesting the demise of independent wine stores. I know the prospect of having wine available in the big stores might make independents shiver, but I believe there’s a place for independent wine stores and large grocery store that carry wine.

Coming originally from a state with wine and beer available in grocery stores and convenience stores, I will say that I miss the option. You know that wine at the 7-11 is crap, but that’s fine for some people. Wine in grocery stores can vary depending on who is doing the buying (I’ve been to a Piggly Wiggly with a good selection). Good wine buyers at grocery store chains are looking at price, but also quality – there is nothing wrong with a good $10 bottle of wine. Independent wine stores, at least in my hometown and I’m sure else where, are providing a niche service and doing well alongside the chains. Sure, independent stores can never do the volume that a chain does, but that would be like comparing apples to oranges.

My sister is a wine buyer for a grocery chain in the South East similar to Whole Foods, as are many of her friends. They are doing what I think many chains are doing in these times when there are so many people aware of food and beverage quality – buying good wine and stocking it in stores that many people frequent, and, therefore, making good wine convenient and easy to stumble upon. If Mr. and Mrs. Don’t Know Much About Wine stumble upon good wine in the grocery store, as opposed to crap, they’re more likely to enjoy wine and explore wine further, which will lead them to the specialty store, local wineries, and a lifetime of wine drinking.

Also, my griping about not having wine in a grocery store stems from me being eco-conscious and having an über-efficient personality – I don’t like to waste gas making multiple trips to get groceries and wine, and I like to kill two birds with one stone.

I do greatly appreciate the knowledge and service at independent stores, as I frequently go into such stores as Moore Bros. or Vino 100 and ask for recommendations, but sometimes I just need to pick up a good $10 bottle of wine while I’m at the grocery store. It’s all about having options. And I don’t have that option in PA or DE.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comments. I half expected to be lambasted as some kind of wine curmudgeon. Maybe I still will be! In any case, I respect your thoughts and hope you're right about "Mr and Mrs Don't Know Much About Wine" getting turned on at the grocery store.

One thing I would like to focus on, though, is the beacon of the $10 bottle. It still is possible, though decreasingly so in a world of high production costs and a weak dollar, to find good, real wine for $10 at independent specialty shops. These shops are not inherently more expensive than grocery stores. What they do offer, or at least should offer, is not just a selection with greater depth than possible at a super market but also a staff to back up that selection and to share knowledge and information, not just labels, with their customers.

Most of all, I'm glad you called me on the issue of carbon footprinting. I applaud your efforts to be eco-conscious and try to do the same myself whenever possible. Wine, though, is one area where I've elected to throw in the towel. Given that about 90% of the wine I drink comes from overseas, I'd never be able to pull off a 100-mile diet.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan said...

McDuff --

I'm sure it's my MB bias at play, but I'm with you for the most part on wine sales in groceries, drugstores, etc.

Gotta admit it was great, though, on my roadtrip back to Phila from Wisconsin, to be able to swing into Trig's Foods in Minocqua, WI -- AT 9:30 ON A SUNDAY MORNING -- and pick up a sixer of Point and a sixer of Schell Pilsner for around the campfire. (By the way, turns out the little Escalette Premier Pas is pretty great with grilled sausages and picked-20-minutes-ago corn, too.)

Don't know if I'll ever get used to Penna's state-store and beer-distributor, case-minimum model. Strange, strange, strange.

David McDuff said...

Hey Susan,
Thanks for stopping in. Sounds like a good cookout.

As for beer in the market, perhaps its an unfair bias but for whatever reason I don't have nearly the problem with it as I do with wine sales. Maybe it just boils down to the fact that there really aren't many if any beer specialty stores; the beer equivalent to a small wine shop doesn't seem to exist.

I wouldn't expect to find too many grocery stores with a rich selection of Belgian beers, where a sommelier-like service staff is necessary. It does seem easier, though, for a nuts and bolts grocery to have a reasonable beer selection on hand. And it tends to require less hands-on education for the end consumer. In any event, the ability to buy a six-pack (rather than a case) without having to pay bar prices would certainly be welcome.

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