Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Top 9 places to buy wine: Beginner's guide

What's the best place for good deals on wine? Where's the best selection?

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.

5) Costco

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.

9) Drugstores/bodegas

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.

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  1. I think you should have not gone beyond #2. The rest pale in comparison for Beginners. Beginners need hand-holding to help them find their way; a local indie wine store does just that.

    My number 3 would be independent grocery store that has good/great wines, like Bi-Rite.

    Whole Foods wines keeps getting more boring; unless you're at a "big" Whole Foods, pass. They deserve to be bunched with all Chain Grocery stores. Their beer selection, on the other hand, is way better than any other chain grocery store I've been into.

    Wine Chains - some are just terrible and some are good. I don't think they should be bunched all-together. BevMo, for example, is way better than TotalWine.

    Mail order - out-of-state purchases don't get charged sales tax, so shipping cost replaces that, meaning it's not a big deal.

    Trader Joe's is a Chain Grocery Store. Chain grocery stores tend to only industrial wines and wines that got deals on. I would not send anyone there.

  2. I didn't list "stores like Bi-Rite" because I haven't encountered many. It's a great place to buy wine, and is really like a local wine shop that also has food.

    Ironically on the day this posted I went into an absolutely terrible local wine shop. I tried to get some advice on the wines of a country with which I am not very familiar. Because my Spanish is not very good, I started my description of the type of wines I wanted with something I could say, "I like wines that are lower in alcohol." The guy blustered. "All wines in Argentina are the same. They're all 14 or 15% alcohol. The same." I turned around a few labels to check for myself and he got angrier. "See! The same. 14%, 15%, they're all the same."

    So not all local wine shops are helpful. The punch line to this is that this is the last wine shop at the end of the world -- in Tierra del Fuego. I bought an $8 Bonarda and got the hell out of there.

  3. Two things you can buy at Costco without a membership - food and alcohol. You can only pay in cash though. There are 3 Costco stores in NorCal with dedicated wine staff (Dublin, Novato, and Rocklin) I bought a 1/2 case in wood of 2007 Dominus at the Novato store

    1. Clarification: prepared food from the walk up

  4. Yes, there are plenty of local wine shops that are just so-so or worse (like a couple I went to in West Hartford earlier in the year). You have to be lucky to live near a good one - but if you do, you're then on track.

  5. "You won't find bargains at Whole Foods, but over $25 [selling price] 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."

    Whole Foods extends an everyday 20% discount on purchases of six or more "mix-and-match" bottles of wine.

    For Father's Day, Whole Foods extended a 20% discount on Cabernet Sauvignons. That 20% offer, combined with its everyday six bottle "mix-and-match" 20% discount, garnered consumers a 36% discount from full retail.

    For Black Friday, Whole Foods extended a 30% across-the-board discount on all wines. (There was no additional six bottle discount that day.)

    Bargains can be had for the savvy shopper . . .

  6. Not so for those of us in upstate NY (I mean Albany on up, not Westchester):
    1 & 2: 95% are clueless
    3: Non-existent
    4: Not allowed to sell alcohol in NYS
    5: See item 4
    6: Thank God
    7: See item 4
    8: See item 4
    9: see item 4

  7. I guess anyone reading this who is a beginner will be keen to go further.

    The way I started (30++ years ago) in the UK was 1) with mixed sample/discovery cases from mail order (now called online) merchants and 2) by going to tastings - mainly clubs but also commercial. When I liked something I could seek it out or ask for something similar in #1

  8. Costco, king of the Southern California warehouse stores, has been working to improve its beer selection in recent years. It has added imported brews and craft beers to its selection of wines and liquor, and though they don't do much to advertise it, you don’t even need to have a Costco membership to take advantage of the deals (at least in California).

    That's thanks to an old post-Prohibition blue law that was intended to curtail speakeasies: If an establishment has the basic type-21 liquor license for off-site sales, it must sell booze to everyone in the general public and cannot legally require a membership for purchases.

    The loophole was pointed out on local beer blog Beer Guy LA:

    “For many years I’ve been using this loophole for spirits and wine, but in the last year Costco has really stepped up their craft beer game. On my last trip, they were selling Stone, Avery, Boston Beer Company, Golden Road, and some Belgian beers all at prices lower than anywhere I’ve ever seen.”

    Unlike the 50-pound bags of tortilla chips and drums of mayonnaise sold in the sprawling warehouses, the beer actually comes in reasonably-sized packages. Lots of cases are available, but there are also smaller variety packs and even single 22-ounce bottles on offer.

    Beer Guy LA explains how to take advantage of the loophole:

    “Go to the card checker and tell them you are only buying alcohol. They will either just wave you through or make you get a slip from the membership desk. Go pick up your beer, wine, or spirits and head to the register (FYI you won’t be able to purchase any other items by this method). The only catch is you must pay with cash, debit, or American Express (which applies even if you have a Costco membership). That’s it!”

  9. I realize this is not possible for everyone, but shouldn't buying from the winery be on the list?

  10. @Bob Henry
    I mostly agree with you, although a few of the smaller Whole Foods will have a guy who really cares about what to carry, although often they'll be a bit limited by the amount of shelf space and what management/corporate will let them carry.

    But, if you are somewhere with a bigger/flagship store, it can be very good.

    Oh really? This is very interesting to me... This will let me peruse the wines without having to have a membership. Nice. I'll have to give this a try!

  11. Only some Whole food regions have good wine. the ones in Norcal are awesome, even though they charge more than any other store in the world for their wines.
    The Whole foods in Washington DC however sell the same garbage Southern Wine and Spiritis Supermarket wines as any Safeway or Giant. Its rueful. No small producers, no real naturalista wines, Supermarket large production wine with a couple of okay slightly more "artisinal" wines randomly thrown in.

  12. Years ago there was a small wine shop I used to buy all my wine at Albany NY. The owner knew his product and had a great variety. It was a small store but the best I have ever found. It was located on New Scotland Ave several blocks west of Albany Medical Center in Albany. Does anyone remember it?
    I am now in Maryland and yet to find anything like it.