The Politics of Wining: How to get a decent bottle at your grocery store

In a hectic world of head-banging schedules, life’s too damn short to worry about wine. It saddens and maddens me that we have to sacrifice the best things in life to save time. And, although trips to the wine shop still reign as a principal pastime for me, I imagine most people grab their wine on the go at the grocery store. Smart wine companies and grocery store managers have figured out that more variety is better, but most retailers have identical labels on the shelves. I wondered why and uncovered the realities.

Basically, economics determine your wine choices at the grocery store. According to a sales manager for Premier Beverages in Tampa, grocery store chains essentially auction off space on the shelves to the lowest bidder. You might call it negotiating, but it’s actually the chain trying to squeeze the lowest bulk price possible from wine companies like Beringer, Gallo or Rosemount. To accommodate every store, they need these big boys with flowing cash and huge inventories to stock their wine aisles. One large grocery store chain beginning with a ‘P’ even employs a computer program to maximize space usage, mapping out your wine choices in the corporate boardroom, regardless of what you might want.

Once the lowest bidder wins, the wine distribution company ships its pallets to the grocery store’s warehouse — then the wine is circulated to each store. Sometimes, in areas of high demand for wine, the grocery store’s general manager is authorized to expand the selections, avoiding the bidding process and the warehouse route. This is why the wine selection at the location near your house might differ from the one near your work.

But the lack of expanded wine choices at most chains isn’t necessarily a supply and demand issue. Michael Nix at the Ansley Mall Kroger in Atlanta, a store with an impressive handpicked wine department, attributes limited wine selections to grocery chains not employing people with wine knowledge who are dedicated to buying and selling smaller labels. He says chains don’t go after the fine wine demographic because they’d need a consultant on site to make a difference in wine sales. Grocery stores who have invested the time, energy and dollars in an in-store wine consultant can see a 10 to 15 percent increase in wine sales.

Although corporate offices may not address the consumer choice issue, you can make a difference in the wine your neighborhood grocery store carries. If it doesn’t stock wines that whet your whistle, talk to the store manager and let him/her know your thoughts.

Meanwhile, here are some tips for selecting from an aisle plastered with wines you see everyday but that never capture your attention.

Look for the best deals from emerging foreign lands. With cheaper land prices, favorable export terms and gobs of winemaking talent, other countries ooze value. Australia, Spain and Italy are the ones who make the best juice for the money these days. But, unfortunately, there’s not a helluva lot of foreign wine on the grocery shelves other than Australian. Not that I’m complaining — they make great stuff, but it’d be nice to see more quality Italian and Spanish wines at all grocery stores, not just those in the “nicer” parts of town. At under $10 a bottle, making the decision will only cost you 10 seconds.

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