The Wine Curmudgeon spends two days in grocery store wine heaven
Imagine a delicious, fresh, cherryish Italian red for about $6. Or a Hungarian riesling, taut and crisp, for about $7. Or a $3 pinot noir – a little tart, but still more than drinkable.
Welcome to the world of European grocery store wine, which puts the junk that passes for supermarket wine in the United States to shame. I spent two days last week in Amsterdam judging the Private Label Manufacturer’s International Salute to Excellence wine competition, where my group tasted 112 wines made for and sold by grocery stores around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m consulting for the PLMA in its quest to convince U.S. retailers to step up their private label wine effort. Because, of course, Winking Owl.)
I couldn’t have been happier. For the most part, the wines – and especially those sold in Europe – were cheap and well made. Many would have made the $10 Hall of Fame, including the Italian red. Which, frankly, was spectacular. It was made in Tuscany with a local version of the sangiovese grape called morellino and was bright and fresh and interesting – all for €5. That’s less than the cost of a bottle of Barefoot, and half the price of a bottle of Cupcake.
In this, almost all of the wines we judged were everything I wish cheap wine in the U.S. would be – mostly varietally correct, mostly tasting like the region it came from, and widely available. Or, as the other judges on my panel, all Europeans, said to me at one time or another, tongue firmly in cheek: “Jeff, we didn’t know you had it so bad in the states.”
Little do they know.
That was the good news. The bad is that there are still too many obstacles to getting that quality of wine in your local Kroger, Aldi, Ralph’s, Safeway, and Wegman’s. Not surprisingly, the U.S. liquor laws and the three-tier system are at the forefront.
One judge, who used to be the buyer for one of Europe’s biggest grocers, said the regulations and restrictions governing U.S. wine sales are indecipherable to most Europeans – even those who are paid to figure them out. It has taken years to understand the system, she said, and it has been a long, tedious process.
In addition, the U.S. lacks Europe’s sophisticated private label supply chain. In Italy, for example, the supermarket buyer can make a couple of phone calls to get the morellino. Here, by contrast, retailers usually have to work through bulk wine brokers, a much costlier and more complicated process.
Still, if what I tasted is any indication, there are dozens of reason for optimism.
More on grocery store wine:
• Aldi wine road trip
• Can grocery store private label wine save cheap wine from itself?
• Wine terms: Private label and store label