Buying wine in this place is rolling the dice. You never know for sure what you’re going to get. Of course, there’s no wine steward here. The clerks are pleasant enough, but I don’t think any one of them knows a damned thing about wine. That’s O.K. It’s part of the game.
Some wines are displayed in traditional shelving on two sides of the wine department but most of the inventory is on the floor and still in the cardboard boxes from the winery. The stock turns fast.
Most of the wines bear unfamiliar labels. One suspects they are created brands, rather than products from wineries you might have heard of. Often these are négociant wines, which are brought to the marketplace by someone—or some company—that purchased the juice, then put it in a bottle and slapped a label on it. Nothing inherently wrong with that—it’s a system that can sometimes mean a pretty good wine at a price lower than you might expect. On the other hand, these mystery labels can also be vehicles for vintners to get rid of some wine undeserving of carrying a more familiar packaging (the lipstick-on-a-pig theory of wine marketing).
For some products, price is not necessarily an indicator of quality. This is surely true with wine. The discount grocery where we purchased wine this week acquired their merchandise for a pittance. They could have purchased wine that was still good, but due to be moved out to make room for newer vintages. Or, the winery might have discontinued a particular variety or had a label change. Things like this can lead a wine producer to say, “Lets just get rid of this stuff and move forward with our new direction.” Conditions like this can redound to the consumer’s benefit.
The 2015 Pinot Grigio I’m tasting is from a very reputable producer in Washington—one I’m familiar with. It shows qualities like melon and white peach. There is a full and round feel in the mouth that bespeaks good acidity balancing substantial fruit. When released, it probably retailed for about $15-$17. It’s worth all of that today, in my opinion.
The same trip to the discounter also led to a more speculative purchase—a (California) Central Coast “red blend” from a producer unknown to me. It was $4.99. How bad could I get hurt? I pulled the cork with some apprehension. One sniff said Zinfandel was part of the blend—I was sure of that. After a little sleuthing, it was discovered that Syrah, Grenache and Carignane were among the other components. The presence of Zin notwithstanding, it was reminiscent of a French “Rhône blend” with good fruit expression in a slightly understated treatment at 13.5% alcohol. It tasted like $20 worth—maybe more.
Maybe I should state for the record that, as a consumer, I think the ideal place to purchase wine is at a retailer who has people who can get to know you, understand your preferences and provide that ever more infrequent “hand-sell” experience. However, dropping a sawbuck or two at a discounter can lead to experimentation that might expand your horizons—and take some opinions back to the hand-sell guy who can use them to dial in some really delightful wines for more serious occasions.