Log In / Join Now

What's on Your Retail Wine Shelves, and What's Not?

Wine lovers are defined more by their local availability than they realize
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 9, 2011 10:02am ET

I took a few days off in New York last month and walked into a grocery store looking for a bottle of wine. It didn't take long for me to remember that I couldn't actually buy wine in a New York grocery, but since my preteen son was with me, I paused for his gratification and slapped my forehead.

Living in Northern California you get accustomed to the fact that wine is just about everywhere, and besides, staying up to date on the various laws that dictate wine sales from state to state is enough to make anyone get itchy with hives.

Clearly we're a country of wine haves and have-nots when it comes to access. Some have plenty while others have squat. Some have more of one, and less of the other.

My neighborhood chain grocery store has about 200 Chardonnays on the shelf. That's a whole bunch of Chardonnay. And for those who like to repeat that Merlot is dead, well, there are nearly 100 different labels on the shelf.

Selection, of course, doesn't equal quality, but I have two wine-drinking friends from college—one in small-town Illinois and the other in central Kentucky—and they would have to sponge up their drool over that selection. And yet they sometimes tell me about a tasty Argentinean Malbec that they discovered or a killer Australian Shiraz. Fifteen or 20 years ago they would've had little more than Mouton Cadet and CK Mondavi to choose from.

In some ways, we have faced our own limitations here in Northern California. When I moved to Sonoma County 20 years ago I was lucky to find a Napa wine, let alone a bottle from South America. (The last time I was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I don't recall the wine shops stocking anything besides ... um ... Châteauneuf-du-Pape.)

But even in Northern California, as it is with my friends in Middle America, the best wine shops are taking a wider worldview. There are a handful of good shops in Napa and Sonoma counties that carry dozens of wines from the Rhône Valley, Italy and South America.

The selection of Bordeaux is still rather spotty in Sonoma and Napa, I have to admit. Perhaps California Cabernet Sauvignon chauvinism is still too strong. Burgundy is only somewhat better, whether because of price or regional devotion, although shops like Backroom Wines in downtown Napa and Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa buck the local-only trend.

Restaurant wine lists, aside from Italian restaurants and stalwarts like Cyrus in Healdsburg and the French Laundry, remain strictly parochial. That's an entirely different and highly political issue I won't get into here.

From all the complaints about California wine I hear from East Coast friends, I was surprised how much better the selection of West Coast wines was in New York wine shops than it used to be.

That's a good thing. The wider the selection, the more open wine minds the better. And yet, the no-wine-in-groceries thing is still bugging me. I know I'm not alone on that one.

What are the wine choices like where you live? What wines would you like to see on local retail shelves, and what wines could you do without?

Jodi Johnson
Washington —  November 9, 2011 5:14pm ET
I am a buyer for a local retail store and we offer wines from around the globe and our customers are quite devoted to the local Washington wines, but also are rather adventurous when you suggest something from say Portugal or Patagonia to a small unknown region of France, I find it is the Wine Specialist that can lead people to new finds and some old favorites alike you just have to find a specialist you trust who is not just about the dollar to be made but the experience you can provide. The world is your glass enjoy.
Kerry Winslow
San Francisco, California, USA —  November 9, 2011 5:34pm ET
Hi Tim,
While I tend to agree with you, there are so many reasons as to the limitations of retail selections, different generations, buying habits and price (Especially Bordeaux) just to name a few.
Thanks for the post, it is thought provoking and that is a good thing for us in the retail wine biz to re-look at for time to time....

Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  November 9, 2011 5:36pm ET
Well I live in the South Bay (Sunnyvale, CA) so I am spoiled b/c I have the following great outlets:

K&L Wines - I consider this to be the best wine store perhaps in the US. Premier Cru, JJ Buckley in Oakland, Sherry Lehman in NYC are both good and I am sure there are some great stores in LA, and other big cities, but in terms of selection and hard to find wines at great prices you cannot beat K&L. Best wines purchased at K&L: 97 Sarget for $19, 97 Terrey Gros for $19, 1994 Gruaud Larose and Pichon Baron for $35, 04 Connetable de Talbot for $12ish and the 01 Guigal CDP for $30ish to name a few.

Artisan Wine Depot - They carry a lot of current release wines from all over the world. I guess my knock on them is that I wish they had a better selection of older wines, but the store is fairly new so that will probably improve over the next few years. 06 La Pipette for $35ish.

Cellar Collections in Napa - Very similar to Artisan Wine Depot in a lot of respects but a smaller operation. CC does come up with some great wines from CA that you can't find anywhere. Best wine I ever bought at this place were the 2000 Oakford, Oakville, CS for $20, 04 BV GDL for $40....Lights out.

And if you are lucky you get in on some of the employee wine sales and the savings are remarkable...Although they use to be better. I remember buying the 98, 99 and 00 BV GDL for b/w $15 and $20 a bottle.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Breaking Down Restaurant Wine Lists - The Right Bottle at the Right Price
Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  November 9, 2011 5:43pm ET
Have to agree that Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa is a pretty amazing store. They sure move the wine! A great selection as well.
Randy Freeland
Castlerock, Colorado —  November 9, 2011 5:54pm ET
While I am a fan of diversity I do not believe it is best served through the distribution of wine through grocery stores.

Being a wine buyer for a 30,000 square foot wine store with over 5000 separate selections I was appalled when I returned home to visit my parents in Northwest Indiana where you can buy alcohol almost anywhere. I found the selections severely limited and later found out why.

Major grocery chains have massive buying power due to self distribution. They have large amounts of wine shipped to central locations and divide it up amongst their locations. The problem is, they only buy the top selling SKUs. This means that smaller distibutors with interesting books don't get any business and the big distributors will only cary what they can sell big deals on. Fast, easy money, can't blame them.

What results is very little diversity and representation of only the major books. Most stores I went into the only high end Italian Pinot Grigio I could find was Santa Margherita. Little disappointed. Please keep this in mind when voting for such licensing in your state.
J P Pecht
West Hollywood, CA —  November 9, 2011 6:57pm ET
@Josh: Fortunately, we also have a K&L in Los Angeles. I agree it may be one of the best wine shops I've ever been to, and best of all, they ship wine from any of their locations to another location for free, so you can pick it up from your local store.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 9, 2011 9:24pm ET
Thanks for the comments. Some great suggestions.

Randy, you make a great point about the limitations of the grocery system. That's why it's so crucial to find a savvy wine shop, if you're able to.

Sadly, many consumers are stuck with a lack of real choice.
Brian Seel
Naperville, IL —  November 9, 2011 9:28pm ET
Here in Chicago, we are fortunate. We have good local wine stores and we also have The Chicago Wine Company which has to be one of, if not the largest importer of Bordeaux wine. They can ship to some states, but I can also pick orders up local for free.

But we lived in Michigan up until a year ago and it was a wine desert. It was hit or miss as to what retailers or wineries could ship to you, most couldn't, and distributors brought little good wine to the market. For many wines, shipping costs equal another bottle you could have bought. It was not fun.
Rick Menapace
Collegeville, PA, USA —  November 9, 2011 9:53pm ET
Being in Pennsylvania, with our state-controlled wine stores, I'm jealous of every wine drinker in every state. I constantly wonder at the futility of subscribing to Wine Spectator, feeling the drool build, and then routinely reminding myself: Not a chance I find that here. Kinda like the guy who keeps ramming his head into a wall, and expecting a different outcome.
Our state "wine & spirits" stores make a show of having special "Chairman's Selection" wines, and occasionally they do. But even the regular-priced wines I seek are more expensive than WS shows in your reviews--and I'm not talking just fifty cents more.
Once again, there's a movement in PA for privatization, and so I wait (even though some good folks at my local store will lose out).
Until then, I occasionally make the trek to Canal's Bottlestop in Marlton, NJ (a couple hours), or to Moore Brothers in Wilmington, Del., even though Moore's doesn't stock WS wines.
Clinton Wine And Spirits
Clinton, NY —  November 9, 2011 10:35pm ET
Without getting too much into it, the "no-wine-in groceries thing" keeps small businesses like mine alive and well. Wine is my life and my passion and the living that I make off of wine helps to support my soon to be family (in the process of planning a wedding). If NY grocery stores were to carry wine then there would be entire lines I would have to drop. I would be unable to compete with the sheer volume of product that box stores like WalMart buy at.

Nearly 2000 small businesses would be affected were the grocery store thing to become a reality. Thousands of New Yorkers would be out of work and families would suffer all for the convenience of consumers and the increased profit potential for larger businesses.

I am all for the promotion of wine and expanding one's palate but not at the sake of small business.
Terry Brown
Daphne, AL —  November 9, 2011 10:56pm ET
Hi Tim,

I own a small wine shop in southern Alabama. (Stop snickering y'all!) We carry wines from Austria, the Republic of Georgia, and everywhere in between. Portuguese wines have been extremely popular. I just check the local groceries to make sure we're not carrying what they've got. The customers appreciate the extra attention they get at a wine shop instead of trying to purchase a bottle based on back label information.


Terry J.Brown
Nathan Mays
Houston, Texas —  November 10, 2011 2:38am ET
Howdy Tim,

Here in Houston we are among the most fortunate wine consumers in the country. Not only are the retail wine selections almost unparalleled, but the mark up on wine at restaurants is significantly lower than most major cities (I recently had a 2010 Denner Viognier for $36 -- $6 more than retail, at the most happening new place in town). The local wine and liquor chain, Specs, has a large enough customer base that they send their own buyer to Bordeaux for every futures campaign.

But the best local wine shop here in Houston? Party Pantry. A small shop in northwest Houston owned and staffed by Manny Vaidya. Manny has had the store 27 years now, and the selection is truly stupefying.

On a recent visit I was able to find and purchase a 1994 Phelps Insignia, 2000 Chateau Angelus, 1996 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, 2007 Coho Headwaters, and a 2003 Barossa Valley Ebeneezer Shiraz. Manny has wine stashed away from every great vintage, producer, and best of all at every price point. I doubt there are many other stores anywhere with the breadth and depth of his selection at any price point.

And yes, you can buy wine in grocery stores here, but why would you?

Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  November 10, 2011 3:20am ET
Ontario has one of the biggest distribution channels in the world, and we see hundreds of different wines each year, yet it is still highly influenced by the industrial-grade wines from the country's biggest wine corporation (read: current trend of "lifestyle wines"), as well as prohibitive inter-provincial taxes that make it cheaper to import from Europe than from British Columbia (not that anything is cheap, given our tax rates). As a monopoly that has to account for an entire province's client base, we miss out on wines that cannot offer competitive mark-ups, and also on small-scale producers, which is a shame.

Mark Lewis
Napa, California —  November 10, 2011 3:21am ET
Cellar Collections is a great place to buy wine from. We are local And Stephen (Goldberg, the proprietor) has some of the best deals on some great wines. 06 Kuleto for an amazing price...
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  November 10, 2011 4:40pm ET
Tim…I travel all over the country in the wine business. I find the selections vary from store to store within the same state and often within the same town. The successful retailer finds his/her niche, develops the consumer and in the end is responsible for fulfilling their needs. While all retailers have the ability to lead the consumer to their profitable items they also enjoy the opportunity of broadening their horizons while differentiating themselves from their competitors. I believe the selection reflects the direction of the store and the awareness of market trends. As for grocery selling wines, I will let politics sort that out.
Stacy Hughes
Regina, SK —  November 10, 2011 10:02pm ET
Wines available in Saskatchewan are not that great as the Provincial Liqour or SLGA buys it all and allocates to the Provincial Liquor stores. You can find a few better Bordeaux's, Syrahs, Shiraz, Sancere, Rieslings etc. but they are few and far between, mainly the large corporate quaffers. The problem here is when you buy the higher end wines you pay through the nose for them. Someone earlier indicates a Sarget for $19.00...well here you will pay $45.00..Caymus Cab/Sauv 2008 is $75.00..A.P.Vin Pinot 2008 $55.00..Chateau Siran 2003 $55.00 and if you try even higher class Bordeaux's you are looking in the hundreds of dollars. I buy very little from the Provincial stores and prefer to special order wines I want, and in most cases pay a premium to get them. There are the odd ones that I get for a pretty good deal but I have to do alot of research and only hope our SLGA can find the wine I'm looking for and in a couple of cases it has taken 4 to 6 month's to receive what I ordered. I look at websites in the USA market and drool with the selection and pricing you pay for premium wines and none premium wines, you have it made in the selection department and pricing in most cases. As one Canadian states earlier...taxes make up a large part of our liquor pricing.
Mark Mcgannon
Orangeburg SC  —  November 10, 2011 10:56pm ET
Tim - I was interested in your comment that your local wine lists are
" parochial." I can see your point as a resident of the area, but as someone who travels from South Carolina to California wine country every year, I very much enjoy the emphasis on local wines - often small production labels that I seldom see - in your restaurants. I come to Sonoma to drink Sonoma. In Los Olivos I drink Santa Barbara wines.
And I love it!
Graeme W Bush
Washington, DC —  November 13, 2011 9:05pm ET
Maybe because we're in a relatively big urban area, but wines are available in grocery stores, including some higher end selections at stores like Whole Foods or Balducci's, and that has not stopped retail wine stores from doing a very brisk trade with extremely wide selections from all over the world. And Tim, I don't know about your East Coast friends, but we have some fabulous CA cabs and west coast wines of all kinds (especially Oregon Pinot's), in retail and restaurants, and everyone I drink wine with is happy about it.
Martin Johnson
Walnut Creek, CA —  November 14, 2011 3:04am ET

I live in the East Bay of San Francisco. Wine Thieves, with stores in Clayton, Lafayette and Berkeley CA, are great for their specials referred to as "Stolen" items. In the last year or two I have picked up several 90+ great wines for 30 to 35% below retail. '07 Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvee for $20. '06 Groth Napa Valley Cab for $34. Caldera, Sequoia Grove, Merryvale Starmount, Cornerstone, Summers, all great for prices much lower than retail. You must be on their email list and you must pick up the wine. They pride themselves on low cost wines, and offer wines from primarily CA, WA and South America, and Australia.

Lot18.com has really gotten a piece of my wallet lately. Great prices (50% off in some cases) but you have to know what you are looking for and I always cross reference with Wine Spectator before buying. If you buy 4 or more bottles shipping is free, and the shipments come straight from the winery.

Finally, I shop Safeway when they have 30% off and an additional 10% for 6 bottles or more. I find that the stores in Pleasant Hill, CA have a very good selection compared to some of their others.
Megan J Robinson
Connecticut —  November 15, 2011 3:46am ET
CT is one of the few states left with full Sunday buying bans and other blue laws. I'm very grateful the shipping laws here are good since the best I can find in the eastern side of the state are "wine stores" that really are liquor stores that carry a few mainstream wine brands, sitting upright in non-temperature controlled conditions. Hard to believe a state like this is still in the dark ages.
Brian Duffin
rocky river, ohio —  November 16, 2011 2:11am ET
Ohio is one of the worst states for retail purchases of wine due to archaic state laws for minimum state markups from retailer to consumer and from wholesale to retail. Also, as in other eastern states, we seldom see wines of small volume producers. (One of my pet peeves with WS Insider is that almost all mentioned wines are 500-case or less production; what's the point? Most of the country never sees them). In Ohio wine is sold everywhere - grocery stores, wine shops, liquor stores, gas stations, delis, drug stores. I wish it was more like NY where the small entrepreneur can sell more volume, but the state minimum markup means that all have basically the same price

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.