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Supermarket Wine Scout

More than a third of all wines sold in America are purchased at grocery stores. Wine Editor Lettie Teague prowls the aisles in search of bargain bottles and impressive labels.

Whenever I visit my sister in North Carolina, I end up spending most of my time at the grocery store. I'm not shopping for food (my sister's pantry could rival a government food bank) but for wine. The names are impressive (Sassicaia, Shafer Hillside Select) and so are the prices: A magnum of Krug costs just $165—about two-thirds its usual price. But the biggest attraction for me is the novelty: Buying Champagne and Chardonnay in the same place that I shop for paper towels and Cheerios isn't something I can do in New York.

That's because New York is one of the 15 states that forbid grocery stores from selling wine. It's not something I'd given much thought to until recently, when I read that a New York state legislator, Peter Abbate, Jr., was working to have the law changed. (The results weren't known when this column went to press.) According to the bill he proposed, allowing grocery stores to sell wine would result in $68 million in state revenue the first year, $48 million each year thereafter. The bill also noted the "potentially sizable health benefit" that would be enjoyed by grocery shoppers, who would (presumably) be drinking the daily glass researchers deem good for the heart.

It sounded compelling—the state would make money (maybe they could lower my taxes?) and grocery store customers would get the health advantage of balancing a cart full of Twinkies with bottles of Chardonnay. Who would want to block such a bill? I put the question to Abbate, whom I tracked down at his home office in Brooklyn. "Special interests" was his immediate reply. First there is the competition: small wine and liquor store owners. One of the bill's opponents is Mike Long, the owner of a small liquor store in Brooklyn, who also happens to be chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. In addition to liquor store owners, some concerned parents worry that wine sold in grocery stores might encourage underage drinking. (Never mind that most teenagers I know prefer Coors to Cabernet.)

What had led Abbate to sponsor such fiercely opposed legislation? Is he some sort of vinous missionary, hoping to turn every grocery store shopper (over 21, of course) into an oenophile? "Not really," Abbate laughed, though he does appreciate a good glass of wine. But sometimes he has trouble finding a wine shop, particularly on the drive home from Albany. "Some of my colleagues have even been known to drive into New Jersey to buy supermarket wine," Abbate said in a confiding tone—naming the state closest to New York that permits such sales.

I was outraged at the thought of my state's representatives having to cross the border to shop—nearly as much as I was to think that New Yorkers were denied a privilege that New Jerseyites, and nearly everyone else, could enjoy. (Even Pennsylvania, whose wine and liquor stores are controlled by the state, has started to sell wine in grocery stores.) According to ACNielsen, the polling company, supermarkets account for approximately 40 percent of the wine sales in this country and some $3.6 billion a year. (In other countries, the numbers are even higher: In England, supermarkets account for about 70 percent of wine sales.) And many of these shoppers are drinking good wines. According to Eileen Fredrikson, whose company, Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, tracks this sort of thing, there was an 8 percent increase in the volume of bottles retailing at more than $11 sold in supermarkets in the past year alone. Such statistics are impressive, said Fredrikson, "considering how many states force people to go elsewhere to buy wine." But what, besides bargain-priced Krug, are the people at supermarkets in those 35 wine-friendly states buying? I decided to start my research in the state next door.

I found a couple of New Jersey supermarkets that were said to have good wine selections and asked my friend Kathy, who lives just west of the George Washington Bridge, to join me and lend a native's perspective.

We started with the A&P in the well-to-do town of Allendale. The store was certainly large, and its wine section was quite impressive. In fact, Kathy said it was larger than most wine shops nearby. Several aisles held mostly cheap stuff—carafes of Taylor California Cellars, pear-shaped jugs of Almaden Chablis and squat bottles of Carlo Rossi Burgundy—not wines I see often in the shops I frequent in New York. (Could they be the wines Abbate's colleagues are crossing the river to buy?)

But these bottles were outnumbered by the better wines on display, including a long row of Chardonnays—the most popular grocery store varietal, according to ACNielsen, accounting for 26 percent of wine sales, outstripping Merlot by 11 percent. (The other two best-selling supermarket varietals are Cabernet and White Zinfandel, at 12 and 8 percent, respectively.)

The Chardonnays ranged in quality from average (a five-dollar Woodbridge) to good (a 33-dollar Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage). The supermarket also offered a healthy selection of Zinfandels, displayed just down from a shelf of premium Champagnes. Dom Perignon had pride of place at the A&P, twirling in a locked plastic case that reminded me of one of those revolving cake stands in a diner.

Most interesting, however, were the oddballs, wines that had been cast willy-nilly into baskets like so much postdated cereal. There were bottles of 1997 Pape Clément ($50), a well-made, well-reviewed Bordeaux from a difficult vintage; the superb 1995 Girard Napa Valley Red ($45); and the 1999 Jordan Sonoma County Cabernet, which an orange sticker on the shelf incorrectly identified as the (inferior) 1998 vintage and apparently priced as such, at $45. (At a wine shop in nearby Ho-Ho-Kus we found the same wine for $54.)

The Stop & Shop in Ridgewood had a similar but much smaller selection. Carlo Rossi was as prominent, but there were a few unexpected bottles too, such as the 1997 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet, a very good wine from a great vintage priced at $56. It was fun to root through the bins for these wines, though not one person offered to help us (at the Ho-Ho-Kus wine shop, no fewer than four clerks had volunteered aid). Was service to be sacrificed in supermarket wine aisles?

Then I read that Kroger had hired wine stewards for a few of its Texas stores, starting with their Dallas flagship on Mockingbird Lane. It sounded like the perfect solution: combining grocery store bargains with wine shop-level service and expertise. I made plans to fly down to Dallas to take a look. In the meantime, I called a few friends who lived in the city to find out what they thought of their grocery store wine stewards. Nobody knew what I was talking about—though everyone I spoke to told me to check out Central Market while I was in Dallas, proclaiming it "the greatest grocery store in the world, with the best wine selection."

I'd never been to Dallas before. And while I'd been told to expect men in cowboy hats and women with very tall hair, no one had mentioned the multitude of Dallas freeways. There are lots of highways in Dallas, and they all seem to have exits for Mockingbird Lane, which, in true Texas fashion, seems to stretch on forever. When I finally located the right freeway and the right exit, the Kroger store at least was easy to find. Housed on the site of a former Dr Pepper bottling plant, it was so enormous it looked more like a shopping mall than a single store.

I found the wine department off to one side, obscured by an enormous soft drink section (which, oddly enough, paid Dr Pepper no particular homage). The wine steward was hidden too; I finally located him behind boxes of Clos du Bois Chardonnay, as he added cases to an already quite-sizable display. A tag, just to the left of his too-short tie, identified him as Dan Wine Steward.

As I waited for Dan to finish building the display, I took a look around his domain. I was surprised, first, by how small it was. I'd been told by the marketing department at Kroger that there were "approximately 2,500 different wines," but that didn't seem possible. There were plenty of decent-enough labels (Estancia, Souverain, Ravenswood) and lots of inexpensive ones (Yellow Tail, Woodbridge and, of course, Carlo Rossi) but not many so challenging they required a wine steward's intervention.

What were some of Dan's favorites? Dan smiled affably. "I like Blackstone Merlot," he said, "or Sterling Vintners Cab—that's a wine I could drink all night. And at $12 the price is right." He paused, then added, "And our store brand, Scarlet Ridge, isn't too bad for $2.99 a bottle—relatively speaking." A woman walked past us, scanning the shelves. "Are you finding everything you need?" Dan called out. The woman nodded as she grabbed a magnum of Yellow Tail Shiraz.

"Are there any wines you might have hidden away, some special bottles?" I asked hopefully. Dan nodded. "I did have them on display, but when someone stole the Cristal, I put them in the back." He offered to show me the room, after asking a man in a cowboy hat with two jugs of Cavit Pinot Grigio and two bottles of Dr Pepper if he was "finding everything." The room turned out to contain exactly one bottle each of Insignia, PlumpJack Cabernet and Dominus, along with several cases of beer.

Five minutes (and one highway exit) away from Kroger was Central Market—a truly astonishing grocery store. There were 14 types of fresh-squeezed juice, dozens of different kinds of salsas, and bananas grouped under signs that told when they'd be ripe.

Here I found my friends hadn't exaggerated. Central Market's was one of the most impressive wine selections I'd seen in a supermarket, or, for that matter, in many wine shops. There were great names of the Rhône—Beaucastel, Chave, Guigal—along with Austrian Grüners, Portuguese reds and long rows of Italians, including a generous selection of southern Italians. The Australian wines were even more impressive, with names like Torbreck, Fox Creek and Elderton studding the Shiraz section. There were cult California Pinots (Pisoni, Flowers) and even a box of 2000 first growth Bordeaux.

A fellow named Bruce standing nearby asked if I needed help. "Are you the wine steward?" I asked. Bruce shook his head, "No, I just work here." Bruce turned out to be quite knowledgeable and particularly passionate about Australian wines: "The 2002 vintage is awesome," he enthused. I finally decided on the 2002 Trerè Albana di Romagna, an offbeat Italian white that the store's handmade signs described as a favorite, "full yet firm and crisp, with wonderful aromas of sage, lemon flowers and peach." The price was certainly reasonable: $12.99 a bottle. I turned to ask Bruce's opinion, but he was gone. I waited for a while, but Bruce failed to show.

Shopping for wine in supermarkets had been a mixed experience. While the prices were often much better than in a wine shop, the service was often worse. Could it be that New Yorkers might not be missing that much? On my way back to my hotel, I passed an Albertsons and decided to have one final look.

I found the wine section unaccountably adorned with beer paraphernalia, including a blow-up Budweiser chair. The wines were all the now-familiar grocery names: Carlo Rossi, Yellow Tail. (I fantasized about a blend of the two: Carlo Yellow? Rossi Tail?)

As I stood under the Bud chair looking at bottles, a family of four came by. The parents looked at the wine while their daughters cavorted with stuffed bears at a nearby display. Maybe this scene was what shopping for wine in a grocery store was really about: Not spectacular bargains or unexpected finds but wine as a part of everyday life—an item as basic as juice or salsa or semi-ripe bananas, but also as pleasurable as, well, a stuffed bear.

Published April 2004
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