Where should you go to buy wine? Wine is truly everywhere, and companies that you never imagined would try to sell you wine now demand your attention. You can’t walk down the aisle of a grocery store without someone offering you a taste of wine in a pill cup.
But it doesn’t stop there. Gas stations, kitchen stores, and Amazon are now in the game. And yes, even your newspaper wants to ship you wine every month. So how did we get to this point? And are newspapers (and airlines) really the best source for wine and recommendations?
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t used to be that wine and wine recommendations were the domain of the local wine shop. And if you bought wine pretty much anywhere else, you were on your own. Walking down the wine aisle at the grocery store was often a lonely place, leaving you to choose a wine based on how much you liked its label.
Since then, groceries have amped up their selections and many have a sommelier hovering about to help you. Several North Carolina groceries serve wine in their cafés. And some in other states have retooled the baby seats in grocery carts to hold a glass and bottle. Now you can sip away while perusing brands of laundry detergent.
The explosion of wine is hardly restricted to groceries, and changes in laws have opened the doors for just about any company to offer wine. I’ll bet that you have at least three wine purveyors within one mile of your home, not counting bars and restaurants. But if a sea of wine within a short driving distance isn’t enough, there are many companies who are happy to ship it to you.
The fastest growing venue is the wine shipper. Is it price that drives this bus? Websites entice you with low prices. But in many cases the savings aren’t there once you add in the shipping charges. So is it selection? True, you can find many wines online that are not available in North Carolina. But it’s also true that North Carolina wine shops sell and ship many high quality wines that are a lower price or not offered by the big New Jersey shippers, particularly wines from Europe (we’ll cover this in a future article). Many of these remarkable wines come from wineries so small that the wines are unrated and under the radar. Any local wine purveyor worth its salt has already done the homework and can give you access to great well-priced wines exclusive to your home state.
[quote float=”right”]It’s rare to open a major newspaper or magazine without running into their half page offer to ship you wine. The ads say that “our mission” is to provide you wines selected by “our team” of seasoned wine professionals.[/quote]The real growth in wine sales is coming from the wine clubs. Many are run by people who are actually in the wine business. The rest of this article is about people offering wine clubs whose main business is not wine. At this point, I remind you that I own a wine shop. But I think you’ll find my comments in line with those of many independent wine critics and commenters. With a bit of Googling and a careful read of their advertisements, I think you’ll find this discussion to be on the right track.
It’s rare to open a major newspaper or magazine without running into their half page offer to ship you wine. The ads say that “our mission” is to provide you wines selected by “our team” of seasoned wine professionals. Many people who’ve read these ads think that the publications’ wine journalists are the ones selecting their wines. But if you check the very small print, you’ll see that the publications usually contract with one of two companies, either Direct Wines or Global Wine Company. This means that the wine clubs from the different publications receive wines selected pretty much from one pool selected by a given wine company.
So, what’s wrong with a couple of companies choosing the wines for us? Nothing really if you’re getting what’s advertised. Many clubs talk about being exclusive or offering boutique wines. But are they exclusive if they are being shipped to every member across the United States? Some of the wines are only available through their club. But as Lettie Teague, Wall Street Journal’s wine journalist, quipped after trying two lackluster club wines: “Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find (this wine) sold anywhere else?” Several of the wines I recognize in the club advertisements are good wines, but knowing the level of distribution, it would be hard for me to call these wines exclusive.
If the value is there, it really shouldn’t matter where the wine comes from. But if you don’t know the winery and the club is the only source, how do you know you’re getting a good value? A couple of customers recently asked me to find them wines they bought through a club. Even with the information on the bottle, I could not locate the winery. My best guess is that some wineries don’t want you to know that it’s them and are bottling under another name.
The unknown winery can go both ways for a consumer since it’s common knowledge in the industry that many high end wineries will keep supply down (and thus demand up) by selling their wine at a lower price under a different label. But since you can’t check a club-exclusive wine’s price with the competition, it’s hard to tell if you’re getting value. Several of the club wines I recognize from an established winery averaged about $2 higher than the price I’ve seen in North Carolina wine shops. And that’s before the shipping cost of about $19.99.
So, is there an upside to the wine clubs? Decidedly yes. It’s fun not to know which wines will appear at your door step each month. And it’s a perfect opportunity to try grapes or wines you may not have known about or thought to try. Pretty much all the clubs try to enhance the experience by including “free tasting notes,” and many include recipes that pair well with the wines.
So a wine club probably works best if you’d like to explore the large variety of wines out there in the world or you happen to live far from a good source of wine. But many wine critics think club wines are more like a grocery store and not reliably good. My (perhaps biased) recommendation is to consider a local source. At least the owner will have to look you in the eye the next time you walk in.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.