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Hey! What was that you said about shady practices in wine stores? Like what?
—Baffled in Minneapolis
Oh, here are a few. Either mistakenly or intentionally pinning positive reviews to wine bins referring to vintages, vineyards, or even wines that are entirely different from the contents of the bin. When I was speaking to various wine-world people for this story, I kept hearing about the great stranglehold that big-box stores are getting on suburban wine consumers, so I spent a day in the ritzy western suburbs checking out places like Costco and Sam's Club. Yes, it was scarring and horrible, thanks for asking. And no, I don't know whether the pumpkins piled in front of Wal-Mart come from China; I confined myself to the wine sections.
While I did find some amazing prices, particularly on liquor, I was amazed by how many pitfalls a naive wine shopper could fall into in those stores. There were plenty of instances where I saw a positive review and high score appended to a bin—but the review was for the winery's well-known Sauvignon Blanc, and the bin held sour and terrible Pinot Noir. There were also things that sounded like amazing deals but weren't, and here I'm thinking of sound-alike lesser wines by well-known wineries.
(My visit to Costco was enlivened considerably by eavesdropping. There was a creakingly old, white-haired little Q-tip of a lady who toddled up to a youngish pair of men and asked, "Do you know where the Ménage a Trois is?" They couldn't help her locate the wine from California, but they did a yeoman's job turning pink and shaking instead of laughing.)
Speaking of disreputable, there are also some independently owned wine shops that buy importer's garbage—mostly wines that have aged past their drinkability, or are bad vintages soon to be supplanted by good ones. Which stores? Disreputable ones. Why won't I tell you who they are? Because I don't want to get myself sued, and I know that their response would be that they are buying smart values; one person's spoiled wine is another's mature bargain. I can tell you that if you're a typical Minneapolis or St. Paul wine shopper who goes to reputable stores, you're not shopping there.
A final shady practice: Sometimes the people who come to assist you in the aisles are not store employees but work for a wine distributor, and are working the store for free at the request of the store management. One well-known Uptown liquor store is notorious for this practice, which is partly why they have such low prices. I'm of 10 minds about this: The penny-pinching part of me loves the low prices that result from uncompensated labor, but then the communist part of me rebels against unpaid work, and after that the suspicious part of my brain kicks in and wonders whether the wine such people recommend is really the best pick, or just the wine the distributor most wants moved—and do they want it moved because they love it or because it's getting old and they need space in the warehouse? On the eighth hand, if you ask a Spanish wine specialist for a Champagne recommendation, what are they going to do? They have to recommend a competitor's wine, and in such an instance you simply get a well-informed opinion. Anyway, distributors can often be found in store aisles, and when they are you must treat them like any other human being: full of unknowable motives, and good and bad because of that.
What happens to bad wine? Do they just dump it in a big Prohibition-style pit somewhere, and break it with sledgehammers, or what?
—Curious in St. Paul
I had no idea at all on this one. So I called up Annette Peters, the import director at World Class Wines, a woman whose little finger knows more about wine than most whole sommeliers.
"I can think of a classic example that happened in Chicago," Peters told me. "A wine was tasted [from a barrel] at the winery, and it was great. But there was a mistake made in the actual bottling (the whole point of preparing wine is to prepare it for the bottle), and it was bottled without proper oxygenation. So, even though the fruit was sound, the wine was sound [initially], it had a problem called reduction, and was terrible. What followed were months of deliberation; finally the wine was destroyed."
Not by smashing with sledgehammers, but by unceremoniously being dumped down a sink, and the bottles recycled. In such a situation the winery absorbs the costs, which is in their best interests, because they don't want their bad wine out there stinking up their good name.
In the case of individual bottles that are corked, which means contaminated with a moldy-smelling compound called TCA that comes from some corks, those bottles can be returned by wine shops or restaurants to the distributor, who eats the cost as a part of doing business. (Never feel bad for returning a corked bottle at a restaurant for just this reason.)