Dumbing Down Wine

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

Luckily for independent merchants, wine is still confusing and intimidating. One solution the chains have applied to this problem is to put customers at ease by stocking brands of generic wine (like Yellow Tail, with its cheery yellow logo) that people have come to trust thanks to the advertising that big wineries can afford. Another is to rely on scores and ratings from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and their imitators. But promoting some stranger’s taste can be fatal. “Many years ago a lot of retailers gave away their right to a loyal clientele when they started to sell based on scores,” Neal Rosenthal, a wine importer and former merchant, told me. A wine seller who takes this route gives over his most valuable assets: his palate, his experience, and his skills at persuasion. He also buys into the idea of wine as a commodity to be price-shopped on the Internet or at a big-box store.

Independent wine sellers traditionally train themselves by traveling, so that they can tell customers romantic stories about the land, the local cuisine, and the proudly traditional or brilliantly innovative winemakers. They go to huge tastings sponsored by big importers, and to trade shows in winemaking countries. They meet winemakers who are passing through town. If they can afford it, they go to California, Europe, and (now) South America and South Africa, to establish exclusive relationships with small-scale winemakers.

Any edge will become more important if all the buying power goes to chains. Small shops fear that they will lose the chance to order highly rated small-production wines once distributors promise their entire allotment to chains, their best customers. And distributors stand to suffer too. Many will eventually be forced out of business, as chains form their own distribution arms and buy from themselves. As for wineries, they will have to produce what most chains want—crowd-pleasing wines, the ones with all the knobs and knots sanded off.

Small stores come up with gimmicks to keep people coming in to try unusual wines. Smith & Vine has a $10-and-under table, just behind the store’s door, a gathering place that has proved extremely popular, with a constantly changing selection of twenty reds and twenty whites—the fruit, Patrick Watson says, of the staff’s tasting thousands of wines a year. BRIX, a stylish wineshop in the newly fashionable South End neighborhood of Boston, has created a devoted local following with frequent tastings, attentive service, and the “BRIX Six,” a six-pack of assorted wines with a changing theme (“French Favorites,” “Picnic Picks”) priced at $75. It’s a good way to keep stock moving, and it makes an entertaining package. Carri Wroblewski, the shop’s co-owner, had been in the wine business as both a supplier and a retailer, but decided to open a “smart” neighborhood shop in partnership with Klaudia Mally, a former customer, because they “were tired of going into dumpy, dirty liquor stores with nobody there to offer you guidance and help—the downside of protectionist laws.

Wally’s, in Los Angeles, is an example of extreme service. It thrives despite small premises, and in a state that is every Massachusetts merchant’s nightmare: for decades wine has been sold in every California supermarket and convenience store, and even in gas- station snack shops featuring “fine wine.” For years, the state regulated prices. Steve Wallace told me that when the “fair trade” system—which predictably protected distributors more than merchants—ended, in the mid-1970s, he thought the business he had started with his family would be finished. Instead, he faced down the country’s most freewheeling wine market. He now travels up and down California and across Europe, creating exclusive bottling and selling arrangements with winemakers; goes into customers’ wine cellars to diagnose their collections; and supplies and serves wines at several parties a night. He’ll even deliver a single bottle to a customer’s house on an hour’s notice. He knows the tastes of major figures in the wine and entertainment industries, so he can offer them instant advice and tell nervous hosts what, say, Steven Spielberg likes to drink. “I make everyone a genius,” he says.

Unfettered alcohol sales in supermarkets and big-box stores would almost certainly lead to a great narrowing of the kinds of wines on offer—as happened long ago in southern states that deregulated wine sales. The buying patterns of the big chains and price clubs that sell wine have already begun to affect how wineries market their wares. This isn’t good for people who long to buy that simple but great Sangiovese they found in Umbria—or for people who are curious about wine but uncertain of their tastes.

If interstate shipment of wine becomes virtually unregulated, the Internet could do to wineshops what it has already done to bookstores and record shops. The small-business owners I spoke with are hedging their bets. Watson and Pravda have opened a cheese shop, Stinky Bklyn, across the street from Smith & Vine. Marty’s, in Boston, has improved its line of cheeses and sandwiches, and hopes that a change in Massachusetts law will let it ship to other states. Wally’s fastest- growing department is Internet sales.

You can’t taste wine over the Internet, of course, and it’s often a lot harder to know what you might like to drink than what you might like to read. But my friend Pam Hunter, who has long done public relations for Napa Valley wineries, told me she thinks that wineshops might lose even this advantage, as young buyers form their tastes by reading blogs and chat boards operated by Internet wine clubs, which will apply ever-more-sophisticated tracking patterns to “suggest” different wines to their buyers. After years of buying and learning from wineshop friends, Hunter says, she fears that she herself will drift to the keyboard.

I won’t. My wine taste is still in form­ation, and I’d rather taste a wine before I commit to buying a bottle, not to mention support ambitious independent businesses whenever I can. But I also know that I’m lazy. If I see a wine whose label I recognize as something decent in the same place I’m buying my groceries, I’m likely to postpone that trip to the interesting independent wineshop whose owners I like and trust so much. Maybe for a couple of months, maybe forever. For now, at least in many states, antiquated laws have protected independent wine sellers from a fate worse than Amazon. I hope they do for a long time.

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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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