The Trouble with Wine “Super” Stores
You are a sophisticated wine consumer. You are looking for wine from a particular region. If it’s Old World, then that’s pretty easy. Need a French Pinot Noir? Head to any wine shop’s Burgundy section. Cabernet or Merlot? There’s the Bordeaux section over there. Sparkling? Look for the bottles with a shiny foil-covered round cork — those you can spot from over the tops of the aisles.
But suppose you want something from California. From a particular California region, or perhaps a specific appellation? Here is where it gets trickier.
For the average wine consumer, the wine label is pretty important. It tells him where the wine is from, what grape or style, and who makes it. This is very helpful to the consumer if she is following up on a recommendation, or perhaps buying a bottle of a wine she has tasted previously in a restaurant.
To be in compliance with United states labeling laws as regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), if a label includes the name of the grape, the country, the state or the county 75% of the wine must be of the grape, country, state and county listed. If an AVA is listed 85% of the grapes must come from that AVA. And if a vineyard is listed 95% of the grapes must come from that vineyard.
Let’s look at some labels from two of our favorite people; our old friend Craig Camp at Cornerstone Cellars in Napa Valley and our new friend Larry Schaffer at Tercero in Los Olivos in Santa Ynez Valley.
We know that the wine is made by Tercero, the grapes were harvested in 2010 at least 75% of the grapes are Viognier and 95% of those grapes came from the White Hawk Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
California has labeling laws more stringent than the Federal Government. This came about after some California wine makers brought in grapes from other countries like Chile and Argentina, and put them in a wine labeled “California.” It is by no means required; but if a winemaker chooses to include “California” on the label, then 100% of the grapes must be from California.
We know Cornerstone Cellars made this Cabernet Sauvignon with 100% California grapes and at least 85% of them are from Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley.
As part of my on-line California Wine Appellation Specialist course from the San Francisco Wine School, I am required to taste and report on two different wines each week, based on the area of study for that particular week. These wines must be from either the four large overarching regional American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) which are 1) North Coast 2) Central Coast 3) South Coast and 4) Sierra Foothills; an AVA within one of those four main regions; or a sub-region AVA. The preference is for the most distinctive division, even down to vineyard designate. The reason we do this is to be able to taste and compare how the same grape under relatively the same wine making techniques is affected by climate and soil conditions.
Finding the Perfect Wine
The Benefits of the Wine Superstore
I have a love-hate relationship with the wine superstore that controls most of the distribution in the State of Texas. I love it because you can find one in nearly any part of town. I love that they have an on-line inventory listing so I can determine if a wine is in stock before I drive to a particular location. I love that they have a 5% discount for cash, check and debit purchases. I love the Downtown Houston store on Smith Street because it is huge, has lots and lots of wines, and occasionally must read our blog since we’ve seen them feature wines soon after we write about them. We have sent people there with lists for their parties and weddings and we know at least one person was asked, “Where did you get this list?” and she told the wine guy exactly who gave her the recommendations of good quality, good value wines (and their prices) that were not listed in the most recent issue of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast.
Beware of that Lady with a List!
However, these wine stores show a different side when I bring a very specific request. My neighborhood store has That Guy as the Wino-in-Charge. WiC once told me “No one ever has those wines in stock” (when I have asked for a specific Wine Spectator Top 100 wine). He followed with “but I have something even better,” and suggests something approximately the same price point as whatever I have in my cart. I stopped accepting his recommendations after the 3rd or 4th total dud crap of a wine he has suggested.
My experience with the Smith Street location on this particular day is even worse. For this week we were studying San Luis Obispo County. Part of the Central Coast AVA, San Luis Obispo contains all of 4 smaller AVAs and part of another. So I went in looking for wines from York Mountain, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles. I arrived pre-rush. In fact most of the aisles were blocked with people stocking shelves.
Only the Rhonely for Me, Thanks
I am familiar with wine from Paso Robles. I visited there several years for the annual Hospice du Rhone which used to occur each year at the end of April. So I first head for an area of the store I know well. So, I’m standing in the Rhone Rangers section (okay it’s not called that, but it’s where one finds Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre single varietals and blends, and it’s labeled “Syrah”) A 50-ish man dressed in the store’s logo shirt walks up.
“Did you need help findin’ somethin’ ma’am?”
Since I actually did need help, I say, “Sure, I’m taking this class where I have to choose two different wines from different AVAs. One, is Paso Robles, and I found that already,” he stopped listening after “Paso Robles” and but glances towards my cart where I have a couple $17 bottles of Bourbon and a $3 bottle of something I found on another shelf and thought (for $3 if it’s bad who cares?), along with a 2011 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas. He pulls a Paso Robles Eberle Syrah from the shelf exclaiming, “Gary Eberle is having a wine dinner in Hawaii! this week.”
I tell him thank you, but I already have a Paso Robles wine I have selected (I’ve visited Tablas Creek, met Jason Haas and toured the property). “How about something from Edna Valley,” I ask, or “York Mountain?”
“I don’t think we have anything from York Mountain,” he says, “and you’re not going to find anything from Edna Valley in Syrah.” I tell him the wine does not have to be a Syrah.
So I wander along the Chardonnay wall — listless. I’m not that into Chardonnay unless it’s an exceptionally good cold climate variety like those we tasted last month at Hilliard Bruce in Lompoc. I don’t really want an Edna Valley Chardonnay, although I do find a few. I wander back to Syrah, this time entering from the end closest to the Cab wall. And guess what? There, just to the left of where I had been standing is a Grenache from Edna Valley. And the sales guy had no idea.
Now granted, while Paso Robles is well-known for the Rhone varietals, apart from Paso, San Luis Obispo is not as widely known as Sonoma or Napa. But the dude is working in a wine store. And he’s wandering the Rhone Rangers section asking to help. Shouldn’t he know a little more about the 10 foot space worth of the wine he has sitting on his shelves?
The System Says There is One in Stock
The Wine Superstore has an on-line inventory system of sorts. I say, “of sorts” because with the website comes a caveat, “All availability and pricing is at the Smith Street location. Availability and prices may vary by location.” I can enter my zip code to find one or two bottles nearby, but the inventory at the smaller stores is extremely limited. I am not sure if we have the same system on-line that is set up for employees only in the store. The ladies who work there will nearly always go straight to the computer and search before suggesting something else. I once found the last 3 bottles of Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc in Texas that way, then located them hiding in Beaujolais, where someone had obviously stashed them to return later — or something.
But often the on-line inventory is just a guide, and it is only as good as the person who entered (and possibly misspelled, the information).
What is Missing is the Knowledge
The problem with super stores, and big box stores, and most places we shop to find a discount or a deal, is that you get what you pay for. Super stores are about volume, profit margin and moving product. That is why if you ask for something very specific, they often are not as interested. Ask for something general? Sure, it’s over in Chardonnay. But we, as consumers, have been spoiled by places like Amazon, Wal-Mart, Big Lots, and The Dollar Store. Places where they have cut out all the service personnel and training, and forced their vendors to practically give the goods away. Places where a bag of Doritos is $1.86. Do we really want our wine purchases to be the same as a bag of chips because we think we’re getting a better deal?
What is often missing in a wine superstore, besides personal attention (and someone who knows how to pronounce “Meritage” correctly), is the guy or gal who has studied the wines, been to the wine regions, knows the store’s inventory and is not just trying to sell you a case of the 2011 Vintage so that he or she can put out the 2012. What is missing is the owner who wants you to come back to his store again and again, and is eager to share his knowledge with you. Someone like Mark Lenzi, of family-owned Franklin Liquors, who took the San Francisco Wine School class and has the distinction of being Massachusetts’ first California Wine Appellation Specialist!
So, the next time you think about hitting the Wine Superstore ask yourself; are you buying a bag of chips? Or are you buying a bottle of wine? Do yourself a favor. Drive on past and go to the smaller wine specialty shop and pay a little more.
Because in the end, you will get what you pay for.