Grocery store wines. I’ve used the term to describe the kinds of inexpensive wines us moderate-income people drink, as opposed to the high-end stuff. Jug and boxed wines and bottled varietals up to $8 or $10, mostly.
It’s become a misnomer, however, as grocery stores have expanded and showcased their wine sections. I was startled to see, for instance, several bottles of Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour cabernet sitting in a bin at a Save Mart in Modesto. That’s a $100 bottle of wine, and not something most of us would casually drop into the shopping cart along with Cheerios and Hamburger Helper.
O’Brien’s Markets has a wine steward on staff, and the stores hold regular wine tastings. Not a bad way to take the edge off the shopping experience.
Raley’s has an extensive wine section that highlights “local favorites” which include a healthy selection of Lodi wines.
All of them feature wines from around the world, at prices ranging from $3 to $50 or more. The selection varies from store to store within a chain, no doubt based on the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods. No sense trying to sell that Georges de Latour cab in low income neighborhoods.
For the tonier neighborhoods, I suppose it saves a well-to-do shopper a trip to a fine wine shop: they can pick up a $30 central coast pinot noir along with the other groceries. Those fine wine shops may not appreciate the trend as much, however. A couple of them have gone out of business in the past few years in Modesto.
One local wine industry giant must be smiling down from the afterlife, however: Ernest Gallo, co-founder of E&J Gallo winery, the world’s largest purveyor of fermented grape juice.
Mr. Gallo has been credited with inventing the modern wine industry, in part because of his aggressive push to get wines into grocery stores and displayed prominently.
In the days following the repeal of prohibition, wines were pretty much an after-thought in grocery stores. Beer was the big thing, and wine was relegated to a shelf or two, maybe behind the counter.
It probably made some sense at the time. Prohibition had squelched a growing wine culture in America, and store managers probably didn’t see the demand for wine justifying any more space.
Ernest Gallo set out on a crusade to change that, store by store, convincing managers to give more prominent space to wine. It was a chicken-and-egg question: Was there weak demand for wine because it was out of sight and mind in the store, or vice versa?
Mr. Gallo had a legendary obsession with store display throughout his long life. Stories abound of his relentless and unannounced tours of stores, studying the product positioning of his wine wares. Woe to his regional sales staff if he found the shelf locations lacking.
Interestingly, the upscale wine sections in grocery stores follows E&J Gallo’s own march upscale. Known for years for its jug and fortified wines, Gallo in the past two decades has established itself as a maker of fine wines as well, buying prestigious labels and developing its own high-end wines.
Today, although beer still outsells wine by a large margin, wines command a bigger and more prominent position in grocery stores. That may also be attributed to the way wine is marketed, in contrast to beer.
The wine industry has worked to identify wine as a food product rather than as an intoxicant. Wine ads are much more likely to feature a glass of wine on a dinner table, or in an elegant party setting with hors d’ oeuvres and conversation.
Beer ads tend to feature 20-something males partying hard and hitting on chicks in a nightclub or Super Bowl gathering. They are aiming at a different demographic and a different beverage experience.
The upscale wine sections in grocery stores raise some interesting questions: Are they there to draw in more customers who may decide to shop there regularly just so they can peruse the wine offerings – sort of like the high end sports car drawing in lookers who wind up buying a sedan? Or do they actually generate enough sales of upscale wines to justify the space and inventory expense?
I suppose in those upscale neighborhoods there are people who don’t blink at dropping a $50 bottle of wine in the cart on a regular basis.
So even if you can’t bring yourself to pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine, next time you bop down to the store for milk and eggs, check out the wine section. Tell ‘em Ernest sent you.