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Supermarket Nation

Posted: Jan 5, 2009 11:58am ET

As you may know from reading my recent posts, I have been in Southern California for the last week with my two children to visit their grandparents. I surprisingly have done a lot of cooking. It has been out of survival, for the most part, because my mother is not a very good cook, though she has other good qualities.

The other night with my father in Carlsbad, I made steamed asparagus with fried eggs on top, with olive oil and balsamic sauce, followed by a penne with swordfish, tomato, fennel, black olive and paprika sauce. My dad poured a 2006 La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (NR) and a 2004 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Meredith Estate Méthode à L’Ancienne. The former showed pleasant apple pie and vanilla character with a full and creamy texture, though it was a little simple (88 points nonblind), while the latter had wonderful smoky, pancetta, berry and plum character and a round, soft and rich mouthfeel (93 points nonblind.)

I have been to an array of supermarkets, including Ralphs, Albertsons, Henrys and Jensens. Except for the latter, the wine selections are dismal. It seems that they have all the same wines, mostly agro-industrial whites and reds from California and Australia, with a few imports such as Bolla, Dubeouf and Louis Jadot. They obviously just work with big distributors who push their volume stuff. I just couldn’t force myself to buy wine at most of these places. I didn’t want to drink anything they had.

Jensens was the exception. It had interesting selection of about 1,000 wines and many of the bottles that you recommended that I wanted to try. The only problem was that it was a little overpriced—maybe two or three dollars per bottle. But the convenience of being able to walk into a supermarket and buy your food as well as wine was worth the premium—at least to me.

It’s a shame that more supermarkets (at least in those in states and cities that allow supermarkets to sell wine, as not all do) don’t take pride in their wine selection. I have read that Americans now drink more wine than beer and that our wine consumption continues to grow at an impressive rate. But until supermarkets get their act together and offer a good wine selection, we will never become a true wine-drinking country.

Charles Leary
North Carolina —  January 5, 2009 2:07pm ET

The supermarket situation is equally dismal in North Carolina and it has a disturbing rebound effect. I work for a large wine retailer with an extremely diverse selection and, unfortunately, many of my customers will never try a wine that isn't something you can find always at the grocery store. While I certainly appreciate the business, I like to encourage people to try new wines and I nearly have to beg people to try something other than Bella Sera.

Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  January 5, 2009 2:12pm ET
I agree that many supermarkets are leaving a lot of money on the table by not focusing on their wine aisles. I do want to give credit to Kroger in Atlanta, though, who has noticeably invested in their wine selection and built some impressive wine departments. Perhaps some of their competitors can stop by and get some inspiration!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 5, 2009 2:32pm ET
I was just talking about this with my dinner guests last night (crab / pesto pizza; 2006 Beckman Cuvee Le Beck GSM)--it seems like Raleys, and Safeway (the 2 major chains in Sacramento) all carry mostly the same wines -- even Publix in Florida has a similar selection as they do. Very suprising, given our proximity to numerous AVAs but I guess they are all sourcing wines from the same people --cheaper, efficient I guess but not what I am interested in buying . Here, the Nugget markets and Whole Foods have indivually sourced wine selections although prices are generally not too bad
Glenn S Lucash
January 5, 2009 2:32pm ET
Look at it this way. When I'm in a supermarket, the women outnumber the men by 10 to 1. Even though there are many women who buy wine and have much better palates than I do, I believe that mostly men do the purchasing and they prefer the liquor store where they can also buy hard booze. Many supermarkets only carry wine and beer. Especially in this economy, I would think people are very cost conscious and not many 30$ bottles would be sold in a supermarket when you could purchase dinner for four for a couple of days for that kind of money.
Bryan Hassin
Houston, TX —  January 5, 2009 2:52pm ET
James, what's your take on supermarket wine storage? I've been tempted before by some OK wine deals at high-end supermarkets in the States, but I've always had doubts about the care the wines have received en route to and there the stores.
Loren Lingenfelter
Danville, CA —  January 5, 2009 3:28pm ET
Henry's won't have much if ever, the same goes for Trader Joe's IMO, but you can find a lot of good wines at Ralph's, Safeway, or Albertson's. Plenty of good wines from Swanson, Rombauer, Seghesio, Argyle, Au Bon Climat, Sanford, Foley, Byron, etc...They sell Caymus, Silver Oak, Dominus, Rubicon, etc (the high end mass produced stuff). Surely you could find something? The imports are dreadful I admit and they do tend to push Smoking Loon a bit too much.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  January 5, 2009 3:46pm ET
By and large, the massive chains (Safeway, Albertsons, etc.) are simply dismal when it comes to wine selection. With far more wine volume available than any other time in history, it shouldn't be tough to stock some interesting selections. It drives me crazy to have to make two stops when I want to buy some stuff to cook up for dinner: one for the food, and one for the wine. Local establishments, while more pricey in many instances, have become my only option for that reason alone.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  January 5, 2009 3:53pm ET
James, I concur with your experience in the supermarkets. They all seem to carry the same old sludge, at least around here in Mission Viejo, CA. My local Pavilions has a pretty good selection BUT their prices are ridiculously high. Their prices are 25% to 40% higher than the 'suggested retail price' as per the release price set by the winery. Thankfully we have a number of wine shops in our area that have fabulous selections and very good discounted prices. Three that come to mind are Amazing Grapes, The Wine Exchange, and The Wine Club.
Michael Haley
Eugene, OR —  January 5, 2009 4:26pm ET
Be glad we have the convenience of wine in supermarkets in most states. I was in Oklahoma for X-mas on you can only purchase wine in liquor stores.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA —  January 5, 2009 5:37pm ET
Someone has to carry all the animal labels, and supermarkets offer wine as a convenience. Let the fine bottle shops (like mine: Holiday Wine Cellar) carry the premium labels and make good recommendations to consumers who want that sort of service. For that matter, when was the last time you got a decent cut of meat at a supermarket?
Ashley Potter
LA, —  January 5, 2009 9:39pm ET
Granted, it's rare, but I've seen some of the following wines at Ralph's stores: d'Yquem, Beaucastel, vintage and N.V. Krug., vintage and N.V. Veuve Cliquot, Silver Oak, Don Melchor, Lascombes, Canon La Gaffeliere, Dominus, Provenance, E. Guigal, Chateau Margaux, Columbia Crest's Walter Clore and both C.S. and Merlot reserves, Keenan, Pine Ridge, Hall, Tignanello, Opus One, BV's single-clone bottlings, Cristal, Dom, Provenance, Lancaster Estate, RWT, La Grange, and on and on ... and all in temperature controlled cooler/cellars, to boot! ... there are a few Ralph's stores around that are apparently affording their knowledgeable liquor guys some significant freedom with respect to wine purchasing ... of course, these are few and far between, but they're out there.
James Suckling
 —  January 5, 2009 11:14pm ET
Ashley. I was in La Quinta and Carlsbad. May be parts of Los Angeles have better Ralph's but not to my knowledge. Can you share?
James Suckling
 —  January 5, 2009 11:17pm ET
Loren. I haven't been so lucky. I am not making it up...
Ashley Potter
LA, —  January 6, 2009 2:44am ET
James,I don't know about the Ralph's down in your area, but I've seen selection like that which I listed above in downtown L.A., one of the beach communities (Hermosa or Manhattan, I think) and somewhere between L.A. and Big Bear (I only remember my non-wino friends getting irritated at the delay I was causing on our ski trip to Big Bear when we stopped in a Ralph's and I kept on saying over and over to myself "holy krap, I can't believe I'm seeing these wines, at these prices, in a Ralph's! ... my best guess would be Rancho Cucamonga, but that could be wrong). I work only a couple blocks from the downtown Ralph's and stop by there frequently ... most of my list above is some of the wines at that location. The guy in charge of the wine collection there is a gentleman named Mike. Perhaps you could give him a call and he could let you know if any guys holding his position at Ralph's stores near you are afforded the same wine-buying freedom as he. Only a couple months ago he had a case or two of '05 Lascombes at $52/bottle if you bought at least 6 bottles (10% 1/2 case discount)...I bought 6 and miraculously didn't get in trouble with my significant other when I got home. ... he has increased prices to a more reasonable level on that wine since then, but it's still priced competitively. He has '05 Tignanello priced cheaper than any other retail store I've seen - $70, I think. Next time you're in Carlsbad, stop by Stone brewery ... decent food, excellent beer. ... may I recommend a "smoky Indian" -- 2/3 I.P.A., 1/3 Smoked Porter ... 100% yum!Good luck with hunting down a well-stocked Ralph's near you.
Karl A Fate
Rhinelander, Wisconsin  —  January 6, 2009 9:13am ET
Hello James I live near Rhinelander, Wisconsin and try to get some of my co-workers interested in good wine. I am often told that they don't like dry wines. I try to explain that a good dry wine is all about the aromas, the flavors, and the fruit and that once you try some good dry wines you won't mind that they aren't sweet. Recently I made a list of producers of good Aussie Reds many of which are not expensive. I gave the list to a friend at work and told her I was sure that the Local Supermarket should have at least a couple of the wines. When I actually checked it out, however, they did not have any of the wines from the producers on the list. Because of the poor selection at the supermarket I could not direct her to a good dry red wine to inspire her. Supermarkets do great damage to wine appreciation.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 6, 2009 11:24am ET
I don't remember the numbers exactly but what: 95% of wine drinkers never/rarely buy a bottle of wine over $15. Only 1% of wine drinkers buy wine priced at >$35. Most of the people reading these blogs fall into at least the 5% and many the 1% of buyers. When you shop at Walmart don't expect Christian Dior and Ralph Laurent, that's not the clientel. Same as most grocery chains and their clientel. Also there is a thing called product placement and all the money that goes with it, and the Big 7 dominate in that area. It's not a game for the little guys.
Marianna Kump
New York —  January 6, 2009 12:13pm ET
I used to lament the fact that here on Long Island you can't purchase wine in the supermarkets. Oh, you can have beer a plenty and wine coolers (ack!) but heaven forbid anything other than that demon salt bomb "cooking wine" is not allowed. It sounds like we really aren't missing much if the only offerings would be things I don't even consider when I visit my local wine shops. I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering what else is one the shelves in most of the supermarkets. I do my part to support the local butchers, fish mongers, and produce stores so it goes to reason that I will also have to stop at the wine store to find the quality I am looking for.
John T Bycraft
Indiana —  January 6, 2009 1:52pm ET
Pity us out here in Indiana. Like everywhere else we are stuck with an antiquated multi-tiered distribution system for imported (Italian) wines; the producer sells to a US importer who can only sell to distributors ¿ who are restricted by license and can only sell to retailers in their state. (Collection of state taxes is involved.) Further, some distributors here make a distinction between grocery store brands and liquor store brands. Even some small specialty grocery stores cannot purchase certain brands from the distributor that has them. Has anyone around here ever seen a bottle from Bruno Giacosa in a supermarket ¿ even his more moderately priced Dolcello d¿Alba? The problem is the distribution system and supermarkets that want a continuing supply of every item on their shelves, which leads them to the mass volume labels. Praised be to the growth of internet sales.
Sandi Bruni
Eugene, OR —  January 6, 2009 3:19pm ET
many of the larger grocery stores and gourmet grocery stores in our area have a wonderful selection of wine at all price levels. Maybe it is because the state of Oregon controls all hard liquor sales and retails mostly those beverages. I read your reviews before shopping and rarely have trouble finding a nice wine at an affordable price in our area. I might add that they post your ratings on some wines which makes shopping easier also.
Michael Green
San Diego, CA —  January 6, 2009 5:17pm ET
James,Next time you are in Carlsbad try The Wine Loft at The Forum near the corner of Leucadia and El Camino Real. It's just south of La Costa. It's one of my favorite wine shops in the San Diego area.
Albert Jochems
The Netherlands —  January 6, 2009 5:37pm ET
James, I think you're spoilt with the choice available in many Italian supermarkets! I think its the only country in the world where you can buy Barolo, Brunelli, Sagrantino, Amarone and IGT's from Antinori and Gaja just off the supermarket shelf. I still regret my doubt when last year I thought that +/-EUR 125 was an awful lot of money for a bottle of wine to buy at a supermarket. It was a Gaja Sperss '00 at the SMA in Sansepolcro. And I didn't buy.....
James Suckling
 —  January 6, 2009 5:44pm ET
Michael. I drove by it. Next time.
Michael Goldberg
Boca Raton, FL —  January 6, 2009 6:18pm ET
The supermarket wine selections here in Boca Raton, FL are pathetic. The only store with any good wine is Whole Foods, and I have never seen wine more expensive. For example, they charge $20 for Kim Crawford Sauv Blanc that I can buy locally for $14-$15 anywhere else($12.97 @ my local Costco). I wouldn't expect Publix or Albertsons to carry single vineyard small production wines, but there are good wines in the $12-$25 range that they can carry. Seghesio, Mollydooker, Chateau St Jean, Sebastiani etc.As far as I'm concerned, it's irrelevant that I can buy wine in my supermarket if the wine that they sell is either a rip off or plonk.
Allan Pannizzo
Long Island, NY —  January 6, 2009 6:29pm ET
James,It is spot on what you say. My wife and I noticed that the Publix store we went to in Florida at one time had an excellent Wine Buyer. The selection was broad and Anti-Generic. Sadly, he left, and they are back to same old same old. Vacation will not be the same.
Craig Phillips
Pasadena, CA —  January 7, 2009 2:25am ET
My experience has been that wine selection in many supermarkets is directly related to the socioeconomic status of the surrounding neighborhood.
Scott Ptacek
Baltimore, MD —  January 7, 2009 5:34am ET
A couple of years ago I moved to Maryland - my first experience with such restrictive liquor laws that don't allow ANY alcohol to be sold at supermarkets. But what really kills me here is that I can't buy wine at Costco. Costco had a great wine selection in AZ, where I moved from, and I had found many great deals there. Now I pretty much buy all of my wine out of state. I try not to buy any wine in Maryland because I don't want to support this system. I can't avoid it all of the time, but I can sure as heck try!
Lynn Alley
Carlsbad —  January 7, 2009 1:43pm ET
James,I thought I saw you and the boys in Il Fornaio the other night. You're right about the supermarkets around here ... but have you checked out Meritage Wine Market in Encinitas? Nice little selection of good stuff straight from the producers.Lynn
James Suckling
 —  January 7, 2009 6:19pm ET
Thanks Lynn for the tip. I will check it out next time. I wasn't at Il Fornaio last week.
Gary Stoyan
Sherman Oaks, CA —  January 8, 2009 10:53am ET
PAVILLION'S MARKETS has a very good selection of wine, and when on sale, pretty good prices.
Gary Stoyan
Sherman Oaks, CA —  January 8, 2009 11:00am ET
I should also say the Sherman Oaks, CA store is the Pavillion's Market I'm referring to, but most I've been to in the San Fernando Valley seem to have a good selection.
Aidan Campbell
Calgary, AB, Canada —  January 8, 2009 2:34pm ET
If you are ever in Whitefish, Montana check out the selection at Markus Foods. My wife and I live in Calgary, AB, Canada and stumbled into this place the first time we ever traveled here. Let's just say it's now my favorite part of a weekend in Whitefish. They have a fantastic selection and very knowledgeable staff. If more supermarkets were like this, specialty wine stores would be in trouble I think! And to find it in the middle of Montana makes it even more fun. I was buying about a 1/2 case (stuff hard to track down in Calgary) the first night of our last trip and the guy in front of me in the line invited himself over as I was "...obviously having a party which I'd forgotten to invite him to!" Great spot with friendly people.
Lon Connery
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan —  January 8, 2009 4:15pm ET
The wine selection at the Kroger Fresh Fares in Michigan is equal to that of a fine bottle shop. They carry brands such as Sbragia, Tiganello, Silver Oak, Petrus, Cain, Miner, Nickel & Nickel, Caymus, Cakebread, Chris Ringland, Brancaia, Chateau de Beaucastel, Siduri, Dominus, Chateau Latour, Duckhorn, Dunn, Patz & Hall, Giardin, Darioush, Bruno Paillard, vintage champagnes, Guigal, M. Chapoutier, Tablas Creek, Etude just to name a few. They also carry a fine selection of great value wines. If your ever in Michigan you should stop by and see what they have accomplished in creating a fine wine department.
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  January 9, 2009 3:27pm ET
I must agree about the generally uninspiring selection of wines available in the supermarket. However I like to see the glass as half full and my local wine merchant is Spec's in Houston TX. I can happily spend many hours wonderering around the world, up and down their ailes. In all, I am not unhappy the supermarkets fall short on selection, just to have the excuse to make the trip to the wine store.
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  January 9, 2009 4:24pm ET
Here in Carlsbad we just head to the Costco on Palomar Road. Probably the best grocery store would be Harvest Ranch Market in Encinitas because it's at the entrance to Rancho Santa Fe. However, it's expensive because it's at the entrance to Rancho Santa Fe.FWIW, Wine Loft is nothing more than a passable boutique place in an "upscale mall"--If you consider anyplace with a Buco di Bepo to be upscale.
Rasmussen Industries
Lakeside, CA —  January 10, 2009 9:33pm ET
James, I found a 2004 Villa Antinori at a Henry's near San Diego. I was in buying vegis and wanted to get an Italian red to go with what I was making for dinner. I used Wine Spectator mobile to look up the rating and tasting notes for the wine.I found that you gave the wine a rating of 87. I opened the bottle with dinner and kudos for the good rating it was good wine and paired well with the dinner. Also kudos for wine spectator mobile because without it I probably would have not bought this particular wine.
James Suckling
 —  January 10, 2009 9:45pm ET
It works! Thanks for the feedback.
Ed Fryer
Nashville, TN —  January 12, 2009 8:26pm ET
Tennesseans are fighting for their right to buy wine in the grocery stores, as legislation is pending to allow it. While there are many liquor stores with dismal selections that pay respect toonly the largest selling products (I'd prefer notto use the word "wine" in association) we have some terrific wine shops in Nashville. That couldchange when so much daily business is drawn by the ease of one-stop shopping at the grocery store. So many INCREDIBLE import wines under $20 will never have a chance to get poured in a glassand enhance people's dining experience. Seth Godin wrote a book about mass marketing and mass production saying "they sell average products to average people." To me, a person making the effort to buy a bottle of wine is way above average (I am a wine retailer) and my job is tomaximize the experience and the product. That will be lost to the metal shelves lined with bland, boring wine on grocery store shelves.I love the quality of many wine shops in NYC. I hope NY doesn't change the law on the claim it will increase revenue and taxes. Bigger is not better.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 19, 2009 4:07pm ET
I agree, supermarket stores generally suck with their wine selections and price. So, how can a super big box store like COSTCO do such a great job of offering fantastic wines at great value? I find the only drawback to Costco's performance is that they are not loyal to any particular wine - they put out what is available and priced right at the time. So if you return, looking for the 06 vintage because you liked the 05 - good luck. But that is no big deal to me. The wine dept. at Costco is the one department I visit every time I walk into their store!

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