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03.18.2006

Kicking the Supermarket Wine Habit

Regardless of their expertise, most people I know, including myself, want to become better wine drinkers. By this I mean that we want to drink better wine (without necessarily spending more) and we want to know more about the wine we drink without a lot of extra effort. Some of us may even want to extend our preferences for small, artisan, local producers into buying and drinking wine.

Even if you have no self-educational aspirations, the bottom line here is that most of us would like to be drinking better quality wine for our money, no?

OK. That was the easy part.

Now that we're safely past the holidays I can offer a suggestion that during the December would have been met with a wide-eyed, nervous laugh and the fight or flight response. You see, I am about to recommend that we all add a bit more time to our shopping trips. Not only that, I'm suggesting we actually make an entirely new and separate stop on our periodic expedition to restock our fridges.

It's hard these days to make any argument that counters convenience and speed (thank heavens for the Slow Food movement or I'd REALLY be out on a limb here) but the ease with which we swing through the wine aisle -- somewhere between produce and cheese -" hinders rather than helps our evolution as wine drinkers.

In short: supermarket wine is bad for you.

Not bad for you in the sense that Olestra or Vioxx are bad for you, of course, but not good.

"If you really don't care what's in your glass," says Gary Marcaletti, proprietor of San Francisco Wine Trading Company in West Portal, "you know what? At Safeway or Costco, or any of those stores, you're not going to go wrong in most cases. But if you want to expand your palate or learn something about the wine of the world, they're the last place you want to be."

There's nothing really wrong with the wine available at grocery stores. In fact, as Marcaletti points out, some of it is pretty good and the selection is getting better all the time. But the realities of supermarket and chain store economics ensure that buying wine when we buy our groceries will not get us very far as wine drinkers.

For most of us, it's time to stop buying wine in supermarkets and to graduate to somewhere we can continue to evolve our knowledge and our palate. It's time to start buying wine from local independent wine merchants.

Selection matters
"You want to know how supermarket wine buying works?" says Raymond Fong, a partner at Wine Impression in Laurel Heights. "I worked at Safeway for years as a wine buyer. You pull up a list on the computer, you type in the sfwtc.jpg quantities you want, and you hit a button. No talking with wine sales guys, no tasting, nothing. You don't have time for that."

It's easy to understand the economies of scale required to stock the shelves of even the smallest group of chain stores. The only wines that make sense to buy are ones that can be purchased in quantities big enough to make it worth the time and effort. And that's not even thinking about the margins that have to be made on the sale, which, thanks to adoption of Wal-Mart style tactics across the retail world are increasingly a function of how much you buy. The net result being, of course, that it is all but impossible for most grocery stores to offer anything other than wines made by industrial producers in extremely large quantities. While they sometimes do have dedicated wine buyers, better variety, and even some high-end wines, the ultra-premium grocery stores like Whole Foods, Andronicos, and Molly Stone's can't fully escape chain-store economics either.

Small wine stores operate in a completely different universe. For the most part, they can't compete with the big stores for the same wines, so you will rarely find much overlap in selection. More importantly, however, the practices and philosophy which drive the inventory at small wine merchants are completely different.

The combination of no need to consistently keep the same products in stock all the time; the focus on wine as the only product sold; and a frequent interest in finding special buys for customers (great values, small productions, obscure producers, up-and-comers or just high quality wines) result in most independent wine merchants having a vastly superior selection of wines when compared with the local supermarket. These people have the time, energy, and passion to simply find better wines at every price point. It's their job, and they take it seriously.

Service matters
"Every wine sold in this store has been tasted by at least five of our employees," says Mark Mitchell, manager of D&M Wine and Liquor Co. in lower Pacific Heights. "At any given time there are at least two or three people in the fpwm.jpg
store that have tried any wine on the shelf." This is true at nearly every small wine store in San Francisco, and quite possibly the single greatest reason for moving your wine buying to a small shop.

Many of San Francisco's small independent wine stores have been in business for decades, and the owners and managers still work the shop floor daily. The employees of these stores, many of whom have also worked there for years, are focused only on wine. The entirety of their jobs involve helping customers learn about and enjoy wine, whether that means specific advice about pairing wine and food, or helping customers experience wine from a new region or a new type of grape for the first time. Contrast this with any kind of supermarket -- chain, premium or otherwise -- where you're lucky to find anyone who knows anything about wine, let alone someone who can tell you what the wine tastes like and whether it will go with what you're making for dinner.

The small independent wine stores of San Francisco exist solely to connect people with great wines. Nearly every one of them was founded by someone whose passion for wine at one point overrode all their other instincts to the contrary, and a career selling the stuff they love was the only option left. The people who work in these stores do it because they also share that passion.

With just a small investment of time, the return on building a relationship with your local wine merchant cannot be overestimated. At the end of the day, it's the conversation you can have while buying a bottle that will turn you into a better wine buyer and will turn you on to better wine.

How to shop in a small wine store
Once you've found a store that is convenient for you to visit, walk in the door and introduce yourself. The biggest mistake that most people make when shopping a small wine store is not interacting with the staff. Talk to them about what you're doing there, even if you're just checking them out for the first time with no intention to buy. Let them show you around, or at least explain their selection and the layout of the store. If you are shopping for something, tell them what you're buying it for, whether it's just to drink every day, for a special meal, or for a gift. Be sure to let them know what sort of price range you're looking in, and don't be embarrassed if it's below ten bucks. Also, be forthcoming with what wines you've enjoyed or not enjoyed in the past, even if they were bought at a supermarket or they were Two Buck Chuck. If you can't remember a specific wine you like, tell them as much as you can remember " the grape, the color, the flavor. Any information you can provide will help the folks in the store make a recommendation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, go back to the store the next time you want to buy wine. And when you do go back, honestly tell them what you thought of their recommendation, especially if you didn't like it. It helps them, and helps them help you.

Some recommended small wine shops in San Francisco
At each of these stores you will find a small, dedicated staff of employees and owners or managers who have personally tasted many or all of the wines on offer. Each generally has a good selection of wines ranging from the most inexpensive ($6 to $10) to the highest end of the scale ($100 plus), though some have a wider selection than others. Each tends to have a different personality, often catering to the tastes of their particular neighborhood, though many draw customers from all over the city. During my ten years of living in San Francisco I have shopped at nearly all of these stores at one time or another. And before anyone asks or protests, yes there are some perfectly great stores that I didn't cover for this article.


San Francisco Wine Trading Company " West Portal / Sunset
250 Taraval Street 415.731.6222

Owned for 25 years in the same location by Gary Marcaletti and his wife Julia this unassuming shop specializes in domestic and international wines primarily from small producers. Carrying an extensive selection of wines from importer Kermit Lynch, and a good representation from Germany and Austria, the store also boasts nearly 150 wines under $10. The staff regularly taste all the new wines which come into the store, and the owners are nearly always on site to lend a hand to those searching for the more exotic or obscure.

Try this: 2002 Mas Donis "Capcanes" Red Wine, Montsant, Spain. $11.95


Wine Impression " Laurel Heights / Inner Richmond
3461 California Street, Laurel Heights Shopping Center. 415.221.9463

Partners Raymond Fong and Rusty Albert have run the wine shop in Laurel Heights for fifteen years. The store's selection of wines caters to the neighborhood wine shoppers, which tend to be well-to-do families who entertain a lot. Consequently the shop has fewer wines under $10 and tends towards the higher end, with a strong California selection and smaller amounts of wines from France, Spain, and Italy. The shop is staffed by the partners and their family members, who personally select all the wines offered.

Try this: 2000 Brucher Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, $15.99.


D&M Wine and Liquor Co. " Lower Pacific Heights
2200 Fillmore Street 415.346.1325

First opened in its current location in 1935 and family owned and operated since 1958, this shop is Champagne headquarters for San Francisco, offering a nearly unbeatable selection of bubbly along with a selection of wines that emphasize France and California with some other global regions thrown in for good measure. As a bonus for single bachelors or avid picnickers, the shop also has one of the larger selections of half-bottles in the city. All wines are selected through staff blind tastings, who judging by handwritten signs throughout the store also have a good sense of humor.

Try this: 2003 Domaine Vincent Sauvestre Chardonnay, Burgundy, France. $11.99


Arlequin Wine Merchant " Hayes Valley
384A Hayes Street 415.863.1104

Owned by and adjacent to Absinthe restaurant, this narrow wine store has been around for almost 8 years. Wine director and manager Neil Mechanic characterizes the selection as offering a "global perspective" The eclectic selection of wines is indeed worldwide and includes good representation from South America and South Africa as well as more traditional regions. A small take-out café next door and a back patio means you can pop a cork immediately if you like.

Try this: 2004 Lorca Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand. $10.00


The Jug Shop " Russian Hill
1567 Pacific Avenue 415.885.2922

Run by Chuck Hayward, a noted expert on Australian and New Zealand wines, this store just barely qualifies as a "small" wine shop, given its size and selection. Predictably it has one of the best selections of Australian and New Zealand wines in the US, with a large selection of Italian wine as well, along with other domestic and international regions. The store has a small tasting bar where it holds periodic tastings of wines for the public, and the staff regularly taste through the new wines which come into the store. Its proximity to the Polk restaurant corridor make it a good bet for grabbing a bottle before dinner.

Try this: 2003 Jim Barry 'The Cover Drive' Cabernet, Clare Valley, Australia $14.99


Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant " Embarcadero / Financial District
Ferry Building Shop #23 415.391.9400

Located in the new gourmet paradise of the SF Ferry building this relatively new wine shop is a partnership between several veterans of the California wine industry: Master Sommelier Peter Granoff and restaurant wine experts Debbie Zachareas and Bo Thompson. The store offers a broad, even handed range of wines from most of the worlds wine regions at all price points, with an excellent selection of German and Austrian wines, and a large number of wines under $20. Most wines are selected by rigorous staff tasting. A wine bar integrated in the store makes it easy to taste a bit before you buy.

Try this: 2005 LaYunta Torrontes White Wine, La Rioja, Argentina. $10.00


Napa Valley Wine Exchange " Nob Hill
415 Taylor Street 415.441.9463

This postage-stamp-sized store has been around since 1988 and specializes in California wines, especially those produced in small quantities and hard to find collector wines. Consequently they have fewer wines in the sub $15 range, but their selection of boutique California wines is impressive, especially those California wines in the $50 and up category for collectors or special occasions.

Try this: 2003 Shale Ridge Syrah. $9.99


Ruby Wine " Portrero Hill
1419 18th Street 415.401.7708

Opened three years ago by the owners of the neighborhood ice cream parlor this tiny wine store has a small, hand picked selection. Partner Jondy Malone has put together an inventory emphasizing sometimes obscure artisan producers and international wines with distinct personalities. The focus here is not on a wide selection, but on a few specific recommendations from France, Italy, and domestic producers, along with a wine or two from most other major wine regions. The store also offers a selection of preserves, pastas, fresh baguettes, chocolate, a nice cheese selection, and, of course, ice cream and gelato.

Try this: 2003 Domaine de l'Hortus "Classique" Red Wine, Pic St Loup, Languedoc, France. $14.00

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This is the full, unedited version of an article that appears in the winter issue of Edible San Francisco, a magazine about local, sustainable shopping and eating. Look for it at newsstands and culinary outposts near you.

Comments (26)

Tana wrote:
03.18.06 at 2:07 PM

Another bell-ringer, Alder. Great post.

Fernando Gouvea wrote:
03.18.06 at 3:45 PM

Well, certainly, especially if you live in a large city. But for those of us who live in the boonies, things are a little more complicated. In my town, there are the supermarket, the local "discount liquor store" that mostly serves the college students and so focuses on cheap-and-easy-to-drink, and a couple of very small seasonal stores (open only in the warm months) that stock an idiosyncratic selection of wines. There are decent stores an hour's drive away, but sometimes driving that far isn't a good option. (I have a physical disability that occasionally makes driving long distances quite painful.) So yes, I think you're right, but don't forget those of us who are nowhere near a good shop like the ones you describe.

Alder wrote:
03.18.06 at 4:03 PM

Fernando,

Thanks for the comment. This was an article written for a San Francisco magazine, with the audience clearly assumed to be San Francisco Bay Area residents. It's not fair for me to suggest that EVERYONE regardless of where they live transition from purchasing wine in supermarkets. As you suggest, there are some people for whom that is really the only option.

Aaron wrote:
03.18.06 at 4:06 PM

Blackwell's is a relatively new shop in the Outer Richmond (in San Francisco) that's worth checking out. They offer tastings every Saturday, I believe.

Zinman wrote:
03.19.06 at 4:08 AM

I've purchased alot of bad wine at wine shops too, from guys in tennis shoes who were sold by a good looking sales rep from some station - wagon distributor.

Many times the mistakes at the wine shops are twice a costly as other mistakes

You have to find the good bottles one at a time.

Just buying from someplace that isn't a grocery store doesn't gaurantee quality. Many grocery stores have a wine steward who makes discisions beyond the computer punch list.

It's never good to generalize about wine.

Zinman

kristen wrote:
03.19.06 at 9:23 AM

I've been readig your blog for a few weeks now and i am so happy to have stumbled upon it. I really enjoy what you have to say, and especially that i don't feel like a wine idiot when i read your blog. you seem to be a normal person, not a wine snob. :) This column really made me want to head right out to one of our local wine shops here in Eugene, OR. I usually purchase my wine from a market, but there are a couple of wine shops in town I've been meaning to check out. This really gives me a nudge, so thank you for that. Also, thanks for a very interesting and entertaining blog.

Alder wrote:
03.19.06 at 9:35 AM

Kristin,

You're very welcome. Thanks for taking the time to write me a note.

Alder wrote:
03.19.06 at 10:17 AM

Zinman,

It's never good to generalize about anything, but it's darn useful sometimes. Mistakes in wine shops are only more costly if you end up buying a wine that's more expensive than you want. Nothing _guarantees_ that you're buying a quality wine, no matter where you buy it, but the point of the article is that you have a lot more going for you buying at a small, independent wine store.

vinofyl wrote:
03.19.06 at 12:29 PM

Good article, Alder. I agree with most of what you say. It does pose a bit of a moral quandry though, when a small wine shop introduces me to a wine I like and subsequently, I find it for several dollars less at Costco or a grocery store. I am pretty loyal to my favorite wine shop, but common sense dictates that I go for the lower price when it is $2 or more difference.

Alder wrote:
03.19.06 at 2:42 PM

Thanks for the comments. Costco makes it hard to buy anything they carry anywhere else. Occasionally I'll review a higher-end wine here and one of my readers who does most of his wine buying at cotsco will chime in that he can get it for a full $10 to $15 less than the average retail price I'm quoting.

While I do try to patronize my local shops, it's hard to not jump on a deal offered by costco or some online store when it represents significant savings.

Angie wrote:
03.19.06 at 9:20 PM

Are there any independent wine retailers you recommend across the bay in Berkeley?

Rick Dobbs wrote:
03.20.06 at 10:00 AM

Obviously, you're not going to get some of the better boutique wineries there, but some stores such as Safeway/Von's and Nob Hill Foods have sommelier's that are doing the buying now, not some guy at a terminal trying to just do cost effectiveness.

I heartily second Blackwell's. Great shop and some very nice owners.

Ben wrote:
03.20.06 at 10:58 AM

Vintage Berkeley is a good shop in North Berkeley. They're just around the corner from Chez Panisse. They focus on value and they keep an eclectic selection.

And they are NOT snobs.

Alder wrote:
03.20.06 at 11:10 AM

In Berkeley I always recommend folks shop at Kermit Lynch on San Pablo. I have never been to Vintage Berkeley but I have heard good things about it.

Alder

Geoff Smith wrote:
03.20.06 at 11:41 AM

Nice article. I definitely believe that the small, independent wine merchant should be the place to go for wine. I was recently in a branch of a large West Coast pharmacy (which also has a wine section) and was shocked: all of the sundry bottles looked to be in similar (if not identical) bottles and labels----none of which were appealing. Judging from the stock on the shelves, it appeared that nobody was buying, even at the low prices.

Cheers,

Geoff

Outdoorgrrl wrote:
03.20.06 at 12:33 PM

One thought...

For anyone living in the boonies (hey Fernando!) a wine club is a great option for trying excellent, well priced wines. They offer the benefit of small stores, but also add the element of surprise. My husband and I have enjoyed both the Pacific Northwest Wine Club and the Sunset Wine Club. Not a bad wine in the bunch!

Flyer wrote:
03.20.06 at 1:08 PM

Just found your blog and really enjoyed reading your posts. I'm a relative neophyte, but know enough agree that you'll get far greater selection and value by spending a little time in a boutique wine store (in fact, I think that's true about many of the things we buy for enjoyment, rather than practicality or efficiency). The supermarket is only for emergencies.

I wonder about your thoughts, though, on large scale wine warehouse stores (one near me is called Total Wine and has about 20 thousand sq. feet, almost all deveoted to wine (some beer and accessory items). They have a large selection and a pretty good staff, but not nearly the variety that I expected. Do I need to go to the Mom & Pop store? Have I answered my own question? Interested to hear your take.

Alder wrote:
03.20.06 at 1:34 PM

Flyer,

Thanks for the comments, I'm glad you're enjoying Vinography. At the end of the day, the size of the store doesn't really matter as much as the people who run it, their philosophy, and how well informed (and pleasant) the people are who work there. The key for me, and what I recommend to everyone who wants to learn more about wine and drink better wine for their money, is to build a relationship with a wine merchant of any size. That means not only buying repeatedly from them, but talking with the people there, getting recommendations from them and then giving them feedback on those recommendations so they can make better ones in the future. That's theoretically just as possible in a big store as a small one, although my experience is that in smaller stores the staff are more familiar with more of the wines.

If you'll pardon the sort of lame analogy, it's like getting a haircut. You can go to a different place every time, and maybe get a decent cut, but when you want to try something new, it's always better to have someone who's been cutting your hair for ages make a recommendation than a total stranger who's never worked with your head before.

WineRebel wrote:
03.20.06 at 1:48 PM

Terrific blog. I support more than a couple of wine shops, mostly because they have winetastings where I can try the wines against other wines of the same varietal and region and decide what I prefer. But Costco can often some great values for wines you already know. And since they are now the largest wine retailer in the USA they have some serious buying power and almost always the best price when they sell a particular wine. I will not dispute the point that they sell some fairly unremarkable wines, but if you pay attention you can get some killer deals. I have purchased Joseph Phelps Insignia, Guigal Chateaneuf du Pape, and BV Georges LaTour at between $10-$25 a bottle cheaper than other discounted wine stores. IF you know what you like already and you find out about a wine before it sells out, Costco is a great value.

WineRebel

Jack wrote:
03.20.06 at 8:31 PM

Berkeley - North Berkeley Imports is another great store (like Kermit Lynch). For Spanish wines, the Spanish Table in Berkeley has probably the largest selection of Spanish wines in the state.

Paula wrote:
03.21.06 at 8:21 AM

I think you make a great point as a general rule.

I often think to myself - what are those of us poor souls who live in PA at the mercy of the PA Liquor Stores (and the inability to buy wine on the web & have it shipped) to do? Other than drive over the borders to somewhere better....

While I know you are our in San Fran -- it truly is a conundrum for us wine lovers in PA.

Alder wrote:
03.21.06 at 9:41 AM

Paula,

Thanks for the comments. Yes, It's definitely not an equal opportunity world out there when it comes to buying wine. We can only hope that the recent supreme court decision on wine shipping eventually results in changes everywhere.

Geoff Smith wrote:
03.21.06 at 10:38 AM

I hear there's a great wine shop somewhere in St Helena!

Erik Talvola wrote:
03.26.06 at 9:41 AM

I'm a bit late to the topic, but wanted to give a big 'Hurrah!' to Alder's article.

Seems as if half the wines in a supermarket are just multiple labels from the same producers. A lot have the standard 'cellared and bottled by...' or 'vinted and bottled by...' notices as well, which means that the winery didn't actually make the wine, just bought it. (note that négociant wines can't be good, but I find they tend to be more standard and less interesting in many cases)

Wanted to give a plug for my favorite wine store on the peninsula - Weimax Wines & Spirits on 1178 Broadway in Burlingame.

They often have 20 wines open for tasting at any point in time, and their website (especially their Rantings & Ravings section) can be hilarious. They are open Monday-Saturday - more info on their website.

Finky wrote:
04.02.06 at 5:03 PM

You West Coasters may not believe this, but here in the puritanical state of Connecticut, you cannot buy wine at a supermarket. You can only buy wine and spirits at a Liquor Store. Old-time Yankees also refer to this as a Package Store (or "packie"). You'd also be aghast to learn that in Connecticut you can buy wine and liquor only until 8pm each night and never on Sunday. The old Blue Laws still live.

We'd love to have the option to shop at a supermarket, for some basic quafable wine even though we know it's not the same as buying at a knowledgeable Packie. BTW, we don't have big liquor chains either. When I was growing up in the 70's our town of 15,000 people had about 10 liquor stores. We're down to about five now. Most are pretty good with their wine knowledge.

So, be grateful you at least have the option of running out at 9:30 when you need the emergency bottle of grapeQ

Alder wrote:
04.05.06 at 10:03 AM

Finky,

My heart goes out to you. Come on out to California and we'll show you a good time.

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