Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Top 9 places to buy wine: Beginner's guide
If you're already a wine aficionado -- my usual readers -- this post won't be news. I discovered before Thanksgiving that many of my non-aficionado friends have real questions about the best place to pick up a good bottle of wine at a good price. So for them, and all your non-aficionado friends, here are the top 9 places to buy wine.
1) Locally owned wine shop
If there's a good wine shop in your area, it's the best possible place to buy wine. You can get advice from the staff, and good wine shops pride themselves on having great wines at every price point. Don't be shy: good wine shop staffers live to be asked, "What do you have that's good for $12?" You'll make their whole day.
2) Locally owned wine shop
Can't emphasize this enough. Go to Yelp, search "wine shop" in your area, and see what you can come up with.
3) Big wine chain store
The selection and prices aren't as good at some of these stores as you might think. They maximize profits by buying in bulk, which means they don't carry many interesting small-production wines relative to the size of the store. And while their published sale prices on corporate wines are often very good, they make up for it with big profit margins on "private label" wines that wineries quietly make for them so nobody can compare prices. Private label wines can be good, but paying $15 for $3 worth of wine isn't good value. So how do these stores rank No. 3? Some employees are knowledgeable and helpful. There are usually a lot of reasonable choices around $10, because that's what chain store customers want. And though we're talking about wine, chain stores are usually good places to buy spirits and beer.
4) Whole Foods market
You won't find bargains at Whole Foods, but over $25 you will find interesting wines. The staff is usually more helpful than at other grocery stores. If you must buy wine in a grocery store, Whole Foods is a cut above the rest.
Costsco has the best overall prices on wine that I've seen. And Costco sources good wines; it's a good place to shop. There are three reasons it doesn't rank higher. The selection is very limited and tilted toward large wineries and the most popular styles, making it a tough place to spread your wings. It's hard to find a staff member who knows anything about the wines. And you can't get in if you're not a member.
6) Buying online
For aficionados, this ranks No. 2, at least. There are many advantages to buying online: a nearly unlimited selection and the opportunity to compare prices on Wine-searcher. The downside is the shipping cost; bottles are heavy, so there aren't many good wines for a total cost under $15 a bottle. Another downside is the lack of personal assistance. In a shop, the staffer knows you're going to buy wine and can give you objective comparisons. Online, everyone is trying equally hard to sell you every wine. As you know and care more about wine, you should find yourself buying more online.
7) Grocery stores
To grocery stores, wine is just another dry goods commodity. The advantage is that it's often sold at low margins. The problem is that grocery stores want to sell the same wine all year, so they prefer large production corporate wines. You also don't get good advice. Grocery stores stock a lot of under $12 wines, but they mostly aren't very good; wine chain stores beat them handily in this category. Grocery Outlet is an exception; it's what Trader Joe's claims to be only better, and is the top store in this category.
8) Trader Joe's
There's a widespread myth that Trader Joe's wines are great values. Actually they are just cheaply sourced wines: an $8 wine there has the same markup as an $8 wine at ay other store, but most other stores put more effort into quality control. Trader Joe's used to have a better wine selection before the Charles Shaw phenomenon. Today, Three Buck Chuck is the bulwark of its wine program and the rest doesn't get much love. If you're satisfied with Charles Shaw, that's great, but if you want to spend more than $3 on a bottle of wine, shop elsewhere.
I like to amuse myself in stores by thinking, "If I had to buy a bottle of wine here, what would it be?" The answer is usually bleak in a drugstore or bodega, plus the markup is usually higher than a grocery store. You might think people know this already, but somebody is buying wine in these stores or they wouldn't be selling it.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM