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story.lead_photo.caption Wine - Photo by Philip Martin

A few weeks ago I had a drink with a local restaurateur who told me he was revamping his wine list, liquidating some of the higher-end bottles in light of a new law creating the grocery-store wine permit. (Until last month, grocery and convenience stores were limited to selling only small-batch farm wines. Now they're able to sell all wine varieties, which only liquor stores could do before.)

The advent of true grocery store wine in Arkansas impelled his action, my friend said, for people wouldn't be willing to pay what he had to charge for those wines when they could buy the same product for half as much in their neighborhood market. His plan was to counter-program against the grocery chains, to stock his cellar with wines they didn't, because seeing a wine sitting next to the banal sundries of American life could only work to demystify wine. For how can there be anything special about a ubiquity?

Still, he saw this as an adjustment, not a catastrophe. Maybe in the long run it would be good for the marketplace, as people who might be intimidated by a wine list or liquor store clerk's lifted eyebrow could discover their own tastes in those shadowless aisles. Maybe they'd graduate from grapey plonk and white zinfandel to Chateauneuf-du-pape and Batard-Montrachet. Maybe in the long run he'd sell better, more expensive wine.

I hadn't considered what -- if any -- effect opening our grocery stores to mass-produced wines made out of state (and overseas) would have on anyone's livelihood; I just like the convenience of grabbing a bottle or two when I'm shopping for light bulbs or dog food. Make that the hypothetical convenience: I don't shop for light bulbs or dog food often; my wife, Karen, is the one who shops for groceries. I am the one who goes to the liquor store.

This works because I like liquor stores and dislike the supermarket experience. I am the stunned man standing in the middle of the aisle obstructing cart traffic, puzzling over canned green peas. (Are LeSueur really that much better?) Theoretically wine in grocery stores is a great idea, but it's not going to change our habits. I'll still buy wine in liquor stores, just like I buy beer in liquor stores. And I'll still expect to pay a premium for wine in a restaurant -- just like I pay a premium for food in restaurants.

. . .

It has always been our policy that no one should be intimidated by wine, which is to drink and enjoy, not to appreciate or admire. There's no reason buying and serving it should be difficult or anxiety-producing, and anyone who means to make you feel inferior for liking what you like is not a good person.

Yet we should also understand that there are levels of the game and not all wine-speak is pretentious mumbo-jumbo or exclusionary code. Wine is a subject of oceanic complexity, worthy of study and attention. Plenty of people know a lot about it and, while wine snobbery is a thing, even a plebe like me can appreciate the difference between some $25 bottles and some $75 bottles (and were my priorities not otherwise ordered, I would drink a lot more $75 bottles). If you are willing to put in the work, it will pay benefits. (But only you can decide whether you'd rather learn about wine or read Proust or learn a useful trade like welding. Each of us has only so many 10,000-hour blocks of time to give.)

We don't pretend to know enough about wine to write about it on a regular basis, but we do know what we like -- and we have enough experience to know what we are likely to like. Just recently we were in Washington and during that trip we bought three bottles of wine at Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom. Two of those bottles were of the store's somewhat notorious house brand Three Wishes, which goes for $2.99 a bottle and was introduced in 2010 specifically to compete with Trader Joe's Charles Shaw line of wines, better known as Two Buck Chuck. (Both the Shaw wines and Three Wishes were priced at $1.99 back then; Charles Shaw is now a little north of $4 a bottle.) The third bottle we invested in was Don Simon Seleccion Tempranillo for $3.99.

All of these wines are fine, just fine, for our purposes. The merlot is light-bodied and tastes more like a pinot noir, the pinot grigio is clean and refreshing and the Tempranillo is a little chewy but flavorful. I'd hold any of the three up against most wines in the $7-12 range and -- while a quick internet survey indicates I may be in the minority on this point -- I find them a lot better than Trader Joe's more famous brand. (I do not like Two Buck Chuck. But in case the corporate honchos are considering a certain piece of Little Rock real estate within walking distance of my house, note that I very much like the Trader Joe's wine shop on East 14th Street near Union Square on the edge of New York's Gramercy Park.)

I'm not saying these are great wines; I'm saying they're serviceable with pizza or street food (the Tempranillo especially so) and that I will gladly drink them. But they're entry points, not destinations. Three Wishes wouldn't be the first bottle I'd serve my guests, but depending on how the evening's going, it might be the third bottle I'd open. Our palettes aren't so discerning after a couple of glasses. If yours are you might want to consider taking a nice red to share when you show up at our place for dinner.

Anyway, Three Wishes is sort of my Aristotelian ideal supermarket wine; something cheap and grabbable when you're traveling. Convenient and, above all, ridiculously cheap.

. . .

But the wines that have newly appeared in Arkansas groceries aren't Three Wishes; they're mostly $8 to $25 bottles of mass-produced California stuff. What you might call Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu sorts of wines, reliable and popular and safe. Brand names like Robert Mondavi, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bogle and Beringer, all of which you could find in your average liquor store, at prices comparable to liquor store prices.

In fact, the first thing I noticed on my investigative sortie into the Heights Kroger was that one particular red blend was selling for $24.99 a bottle -- about $5 more than it could be had at a liquor store a couple of blocks away. And while there were bargains -- 19 Crimes Red Blend, a sturdy Australian mix of shiraz, grenache and cabernet sauvignon, was selling for $9.99, a couple of dollars cheaper than I've seen it in other outlets -- I didn't perceive any general budgetary advantage to buying wine in the grocery. In fact, considering the limited space allotted and apparent caution of the wine buyer, I felt I could do quite a bit better prowling through a liquor store for shelf orphans and specials.

The liquor store is a lot more fun.

The only advantage to buying wine in the grocery is obvious: You can buy wine -- if your wine is the sort of beige sedan wine they have on offer -- the same place you buy cornflakes. While that's going to have a real impact on liquor stores, it may do them less damage than they fear. A lot of us who frequent liquor stores don't want to buy our wine at the supermarket because we kind of hate going to the supermarket and can imagine what a hassle it will be trying to go through the self-checkout line with clanking bottles that require a government ID to buy.

Wine in grocery stores seems a necessary step in human progress. Wake me up when the drones are dropping it off on our doorstep.


Style on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: Grocery store wines: Reliable, popular and safe

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  • MaxCady
    December 17, 2017 at 1:34 p.m.

    I think Little Rock could support a Trader Joe's. We were in Dallas a month or so ago and the TJ's we went to was packed on a Sunday at noon (no alcohol sales until then!). The $2BC was on sale for $1.99 and my wife ended up buying two cases of it! She loves it! Her brother usually brings some when he comes up from San Antonio.