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?