Dumbing Down Wine

Chain stores threaten to destroy independent wineshops— and your chances of finding interesting wine

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Five California Wines From Wally's
Some well-priced wines recommended by Corby Kummer.

A recent battle in my home state of Massachusetts made me think about where and how I like to buy wine. The issue is one many states face: whether to allow some or all grocery and big-box stores to sell wine and beer. In Massachusetts, owners of wine and liquor stores—quaintly called “package stores” (you carry the alcohol out in packages, rather than consume it on the premises)—may hold no more than three licenses. Whole Foods, for example, can sell wine at only three of its seventeen Massachusetts stores. Naturally, it doesn’t like this. Neither do other grocery-chain owners like Stop & Shop and Star Market, which put $2 million into promoting a Massachusetts ballot initiative this fall to loosen restrictions on wine sales. Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and other big-box stores are in favor of similar initiatives in other states.

Opponents of the Massachusetts initiative (whose outcome, as of this writing, was to be settled on the November ballot) sounded like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man with his warning to parents: “Medicinal wine from a teaspoon—then beer from a bottle!” Easier access to wine, they warned, would lead to underage and binge drinking and more car crashes, cirrhosis, and even gonorrhea. Stores selling alcohol would unravel the social fabric of entire neighborhoods. Supermarkets and convenience stores would have little incentive to enforce age limits at the cash register (and just think of self-checkout lines!).

Of course, supermarkets and big-box stores have two powerful arguments in support of easing licensing restrictions: price and, especially for supermarkets, convenience. Supermarkets say that loosening the old, post-Prohibition laws—which usually allowed distributors to keep a hold on liquor profits—would mean both price breaks and huge savings of time for consumers. Why should a busy mother have to make an extra stop at the package store on her way home from buying groceries just to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner?

Similar initiatives in other states have repeatedly been defeated. In 2004, the Minnesota legislature voted down wider supermarket sales of wine for the fourth year in a row. New York State, with more-restrictive rules than Massachusetts to begin with—just one license per owner—has also repeatedly voted against wider access. Who could oppose convenience? Voters who fear wider availability of alcohol; “dry” towns (Massachusetts has fourteen) that would have to choose whether or not to prohibit wine sales if the initiative passed; and candidates, who usually want to keep away from the argument. State governments also worry that enforcing age limits on buying alcohol may cost money, and that state alcohol-related accidents and crimes may increase.

Mom-and-pop wineshops stand to lose the most from an easing of licensing. Even if post-Prohibition laws kept profits in the hands of distributors and states, they also allowed independent wine merchants to flourish. Odd as it might seem to wine connoisseurs, the era of the package store might soon seem a lost golden age.

Independent wineshops now feel menaced by two Goliaths—not only the supermarkets, with their relentless ballot campaigns, but also the Internet. A Supreme Court decision in May of 2005 allowed wineries and Internet businesses to ship wine direct to buyers in many states—something that was previously prohibited almost everywhere (and still is in more than a dozen states). The heavy tread of these twin Goliaths brings up the question: If the patchwork of protectionist wine-sale laws is torn away, will independent wineshops be able to escape the fate of independent bookshops?

Convenience isn’t always best or cheapest,” Tom Schmeisser, the buyer at Marty’s, a large and well-established wine and gourmet store with two locations in the Boston area, told me recently. “Corporate [buyers for chains] won’t say, ‘I think we should get a nice little Aglianico this week.’” He predicts that chains will stock mostly their own private-label brands, as is the trend at Trader Joe’s; Costco already sells private-label Kirkland Signature wines. “It’s the dumbing down of wine,” Schmeisser says.

Wineshop owners can not only tell you what Aglianico tastes like (it’s an astringent but pleasant red wine from southern Italy), they can also pour you a sample. They can tell you what to serve it with—and give you a recipe. Patrick Watson, a former sommelier and waiter at the New York City restaurant Lupa (my favorite of the mostly Italian empire run by Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich), employs recent French Culinary Institute graduates at Smith & Vine, the small Brooklyn wineshop he runs with his wife, Michele Pravda. (When they met, at Lupa, he was training as an opera singer, and she was playing in a rock band.) “If you come in and say you need something to go with chicken, we’ll ask you what you’re putting with it,” he told me. Like other owners, Watson requires his staff members to taste practically every wine they sell, and to teach customers how to taste them. Small wine stores offer frequent tastings (especially on weekends), which are the equivalent of mini wine courses.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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