Whole Foods customers around the country may have noticed a new addition to their usual grocery store in recent months—a bar. The Austin-based grocery chain is opening spaces within select stores for customers to sample wine and beer. There's no hard alcohol, but some of the "tasting spaces" have a definite bar-vibe.
“We are trying to make folks understand that food accompanies wine and that wine is an enhancer for food," said Doug Bell, national wine buyer for the chain. "That is one of the reasons we refrain from using the term 'bar.' We are proponents of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.”
Depending on the state they live in, customers may be able to take their pour of craft beer or wine with them while they shop, but most likely they'll be hanging out in the specifically licensed bar space. Out of 291 stores in 38 states, 16 locations currently have wine and beer bars and six more are in the works. Napa has been among the early test sites, and California is home to the most Whole Foods tasting spaces to date. Other states with locations include Texas, Illinois, Missouri and even Pennsylvania, despite its strict alcohol retail laws.
Because laws vary widely throughout the United States, however, the concept won't be coming to every location. Some states, such as New York and Tennessee, forbid wine sales in grocery stores.
Representatives of the chain insist the idea is not to have bars where people would congregate to drink alcohol, but rather offer an opportunity for further consumer education on beers and wines. Some sites, however, seem to edge closer to bardom. The Whole Foods in Fair Lakes, Va., one of the company’s larger locations, opened a tasting space that includes four large-screen TVs for sports and offers beer, wine, wings and pizza on weekend afternoons. But there's also a tasting area focused on wine, which recently offered 1997 Château d’Yquem at $5 a taste. The tasting space in Napa has offered samples of 1983 Haut-Brion, while the “Tap Room” in Santa Rosa, Calif., held a pairing of craft beer with cheese.
As more Whole Foods stores add tasting spaces, executives are also considering what they call a “Brew and Brew”—that is, a coffee bar in the morning that transitions to a space for beer and wine at night. Bell says they are trying to “make shopping less of a chore and more of a pleasurable experience." Indeed, between a taste of high-end Bordeaux, a beer during the baseball game or a mid-afternoon wine break, Whole Foods is starting to look less like a grocer, and more like a spot for a first date.