Dumbing Down Wine

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

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.

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.