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December 30, 2015

Big Box Wine Retailers

Each sale of a heavily marketed branded wine from a supermarket is one less sale of a genuine terroir wine from an independent wine merchant.” -Jamie Goode aka The Wine Anorak

Happy holidays to my readers! Though I can only get away with saying that for another day or two!

This is the time of year for copious amounts of food, booze around of every corner, and lotsa parties. ‘Tis the season! December is a month where if you blink too fast, you might miss it. Time flies between work, office/client parties, family commitments, gift exchanges, potlucks, etc! Now is when you might find yourself with the need to purchase wine in quantity. Maybe you had a holiday party and you bought a couple mixed cases. Or maybe you need to buy a few bottles to give as gifts or to take to a party. You might be stocking up on bubbly for New Years Eve. The wine opportunities are endless in December. The question becomes, where do you get your wines for this gluttonous month?  There are a few options (depending on where you live). These include: grocery stores, local wine shops, or big box retailers. This post will focus on big box wine retailers. They could include alcohol retailers such as BevMo! or Total Wine. Or they might include Costo, which is a big box retailer that carries wine. In my humble opinion, there are many problems with purchasing your wine at a big box retailer. I will highlight a couple issues below.

Problem #1: Big Box Retailers give a customer the illusion of choice

When you walk into a BBR (Big Box Retailer) you’re faced with wall to wall shelves of wine. So many choices you have! Or do you? I submit that you do not and that it’s an illusion-filled store of homogeneous wine. BBRs predominantly carry mass-produced wine, which is usually made by a commercial producer who purchases grapes en masse and makes wine on an industrial level. The wine has no sense of place (what we call terroir). More often than not, it is a “California Blend” or a “White Wine” or something of the like. If we’re talking about California wine at lower price points ($5-$10 retail), those wines will usually be chalk full of undesirable additives, chemicals, and/or preservatives, such as: commercial tannins, bentonite, flavor and color enhancing enzymes, carbon, synthetic polymers, and gum arabic. The wine is made to be approachable and pleasant (aka easy to drink). In wine geek terms, this means that the wine will be slightly sweet with a small amount of RS (residual sugar), have low tannins/acidity, and a lot of fruit on the nose and palate. Consequently, most all of these wines taste alike.

In essence, BBRs are warehouses of (generally) uninspiring, industrial wines. Note however, that BBRs carry high-end wines as well. These wines might be made well, however, they are still (usually) made in mass quantities. These are brands/labels that you see and recognize or that you would be proud to bring to a dinner party. Those wines also come with a cost. You can assume that a nice chunk of the price of that wine went to pay for their expensive wine-making facilities and towards the marketing of the brand.

Problem #2: Much of the price you pay is for the marketing of the wine, not the wine itself

With mass produced wine, part of the cost that you pay is the marketing budget. If you walk into a BBR and recognize a wine brand on the shelf, that has a cost associated with it. That company spent money to ensure that when you walked into the store, you would recognize their brand and purchase it. Some of these examples include: Yellowtail, Kenwood, Gallo, Blackstone, Sutter Home, Barefoot, etc.

Another cost is the promotion of the wine. Where is the wine placed in the store? At eye-level?  On an end cap?  Double exposed in the window and in an aisle? Many times the producer/distributor has to pay the BBR for desirable placement in their stores or in a print advertisement.

I don’t know about you, but when I spend $ on wine, I want it to be about the wine. I want to support someone who grows the grapes, who made the wine, and who believes in the art of wine-making. I want to support their livelihood.

I won’t share names, but I had a friend who worked (for a short time only) for a BBR. He was instructed to first ALWAYS recommend the wines that they direct imported. Forget if there was something else that worked better for what the customer wanted or that better fit within their budget. He had to be a puppet and recommend “their own” wines. So remember when I told you that you really don’t have more choices in places like this? This is what I mean. It’s an illusion.

This may seem like a bashing post on BBRs. In fact, it is not. This is my opinion on the shortcomings of shopping at a BBR. There are a lot of people who might live in small towns or who don’t have access to a local wine shop.  If you want to enjoy wine, you really don’t have a choice, and I understand that.  In that case, embrace the BBR. Be cautious with the “buy 3, get 1 free deals” or the recommendations from the staff. There is plenty of drinkable and enjoyable wine within those 4 walls….enjoy it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

If you do have a choice, please support your local wine shop. They are everywhere….really, they are. Google it, check Yelp, post on Facebook, etc. I have been pleasantly surprised time and time again to find a wine shop in many small, unassuming towns across America. Those salespeople have no allegiance to any specific wineries, distributors, etc. The vendor reps aren’t going to give them free bottles for meeting sales goals, and they aren’t being held to a quota by upper management. The idea is that the selection in the store is pre-curated with only quality wines (note that quality does not mean expensive). The salespeople are truly there to help you and to demystify the process of purchasing wine.

Lastly, I want to quickly address the issue of price. A lot of people say that they shop at BBRs because it is cheaper. Is wine at a BBR really less expensive? Yes and no. Yes, many times you can find bottles cheaper at a BBR, than at an indy retail spot. BBRs may have paid less for the wine at wholesale (because of quantity discounts, which aren’t allowed in all states), and can thus offer better retail prices, promotions, etc.

I say: don’t buy those wines anyway! See above regarding mass produced wines. Yeah, you can probably get a bottle of Blackstone Merlot for $9 at Total Wine. But guess what, you can get a decent Italian Merlot at a local wine shop for maybe $11-$13. By doing that, you are probably supporting a smaller producer in Italy, who is making honest wines. And you’re supporting a small business in your community. Boom.

Happy New Year readers and thank you for allowing me to share my wine voice with you. I hope you have enjoyed my SOMMspirations… inspirations from a sommelier.  Until 2016!!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you’re looking to Up Your Wine Game and Drink Better, consider booking a private in-person or virtual wine tasting experience.
Brianne Cohen Wine Educator
Brianne Cohen is a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier, wine educator, consultant, and writer.

Brianne has educated and entertained over 10,000 people through her in-person and virtual wine tasting experiences.

Brianne holds the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Diploma certificate, one of the most coveted wine certifications in the world. When she’s not helping people Up Their Wine Game, she can be found judging at international wine competitions

Brianne aims to make wine approachable and conversational, to surprise and delight with unexpected wine finds, and to give people knowledge (and confidence) about wine in their everyday lives.

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As a wine writer, I frequently accept samples for review on my  website and on my social media channels. Please contact me at to discuss sending samples for review. I promise to always be honorable with the samples. I will evaluate all wines in good tasting settings and with no distractions.

All reviews are my opinions, and mine only. Because of the volume of samples I receive, I cannot promise that all samples received will be reviewed, but I will do my best.

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