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.
“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 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.
“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
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