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Widening the Wine Aisle

Solo Vino's Robert Strunk: "The wine they can sell in grocery stores isn't personalized."
Craig Lassig

Dear Dara,

I am writing to you as a longtime fan. I have always enjoyed your reviews, perspective, and attitude. I must, however, take issue with your column arguing in favor of the proposal to make it legal to sell wine in grocery stores ["Wine Grocery Redux," Feb. 25]. The concept of being able to buy your groceries and wine at the same time seems practical and reasonable at first glance, but it is simply naïve.

What I have loved about the market for wine in Minnesota is the incredible amount of choice. You'll find Beaumes-de-Venise in both white Muscat or red blend forms. You'll find Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Bordeaux, or California. Choices abound. In Arizona, where I've lived and worked in the industry, mass-market appeal is the rule of thumb. California Cabernet can be found. Argentine Malbecs are rare. Single-vineyard Burgundies can only be procured online. Is this the gastronomical world that you would really want for us poor "innocent wine drinkers?"

Now, let's talk about the folks behind the bill, the Minnesota Grocers Association, i.e.: Cub Foods, Rainbow, Super Target, as well as the massive corporate distributors of the products that they want us to consume to help their bottom line. Let's be specific: Because the proposed law would only include grocery stores over 10,000 square feet, every local mom-and-pop store would be exempt. So let's take a little stroll through what the corporatization of the food industry has taught us. Bigger is better; the record is clear. Why buy a family-owned, -farmed, -vinified, and -bottled wine when you can buy some insipid, factory-formed, marketed, and distributed bottle of "Two Buck Chuck"?

Please think for a moment what it would mean if wine were to be sold in corporate grocery stores. Job loss. First, smaller distributors would close because they have no clout, and these are the very people who bring us eccentric wines from places we have never been and quite often never heard of. Liquor stores will fall next. Do you, as a consumer, want to explore the wines of little-known regions of the world that may produce fewer than 5,000 cases of wine a year, or do you want to swallow the next "best" thing the corporate world has created for you?

Every day a family-run farm goes bankrupt. Just think of the joblessness that occurs when you buy corporate wine. A family farm that has been in that family for centuries fails. The distributor who took that wine worldwide fails. The importer (who probably lives here) loses income. The retailer is out of business because Cub and others have killed his bottom line.

But I digress. Do you really want to begin tasting and commenting on the differences between Wendy's junior bacon cheeseburger and Burger King's charbroiled burger? Are we to become a state where the food at Perkins is gourmet? Is an evening at the Olive Garden a night out? Dream of a world where there is no Solera, no W.A. Frost. A world in which Lucia Watson sells herself to the corporate devil. Imagine that, you cynics! Once you begin to drive out individuality, there is no end.

Dara, do you really desire a world where you must wear a lab coat and are forced to taste fries in some sterile subterranean lair in which Dick Cheney occasionally appears to add more salt and/or start another war?

--Brian, Minneapolis

Dear Brian,

Lordy!

You know, it seems to me that we already live in a world where Olive Garden constitutes a night out. It also seems to me that the existence of Perkins doesn't jeopardize Lucia Watson's purity of heart and vision. Good Lord, man, these are merely horrible corporate-money juggernauts. They're not satanic super-beings capable of stealing our souls, destroying our taste, and directing all of our purchases. Each one of us, all day long, is capable of exercising free will.

Even in the face of bargains.

I swear to you, this is true.

I mean, if our brethren have retained their human souls in the face of the Spanish Inquisition, the Star Chambers, institutionalized slavery, Hitler, Franco, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, surely we Minnesotans are capable of defending our free will against low, low prices on the good stuff.

But enough of what I think. You get plenty of that week in and week out. What do the people whom you are defending, the staunch owners and employees of our best wine and liquor stores, think?

As it turns out, they mostly think they don't want to go on the record. "Grocery stores would sell funerals if you'd let 'em!" one wine shop old-timer told me, refusing to be quoted by name, adding that grocery store employees would certainly sell to the underage. "Have you seen what they have for cashiers? They're a bunch of creatures!"  

However, the people who do want to go on the record have a more nuanced view of the perils and probabilities of wine in the grocery stores, so let's let them have their say.

Solo Vino is one of the best wine stores in the Midwest. It's a golden little oasis in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill where each and every bottle is selected and tasted by the owners. Even though these are exactly the people who find unusual wines and hand-sell them to customers, they aren't worried about wine in grocery stores. "I think certain people will suffer, especially MGM and big shops," says Robert Strunk, one of Solo Vino's co-owners. "The places that will get hurt the most are the ones that sell more liquor than we do, and don't staff stores with wine people. I think what will happen is that wine in grocery stores will introduce more people to wine. They'll drink it for a while and eventually want to learn more, so they'll come to us.

"The wine they can sell in grocery stores isn't personalized," he continues, meaning it isn't personally relevant to you, your dinner, your wallet, or your taste. It isn't personalized from the other side, either; when you buy it, you won't be told anything about the producers, the vintage, or the region it comes from, so it's depersonalized wine for a depersonalized you.

Like, say, a haircut. There are massive cheapie haircutting chains with locations in every mall everywhere, not to mention all kinds of boxed hair color in every Walgreen's. But just try to get an appointment with one of the top colorists in Uptown this week. I dare you.

But I digress.

"A grocery store will never be able to spend the kind of money to have someone in there all the time who knows about wine," explains Strunk. "It will all be volume. You'll go in there and find Kendall Jackson, Turning Leaf, that kind of thing. You'll find good things, too, but they'll never get the stuff where only five cases come into the state. It's too much hassle for them. Our feeling is, if the per capita consumption of wine rises, we benefit. Compared to per capita consumption in Europe, we're way low. People need some basis of experience before they're able to decide they like the stuff and want to have something better. People who really like wine and appreciate it will never be satisfied with what they have in the grocery stores."

Not in terms of variety, not in terms of service, not on the high-end wines that come out in small numbers, or in the wines that are cheap and good. "We help people with a lot of weddings," says Strunk. "We can help them pick out these great inexpensive wines that are under $10, but still very good, so you're not embarrassed in front of your guests. We also give a discount when you're buying bigger purchases. So if we find something at $5.99, then give you a discount, a grocery store won't be able to produce that kind of value."

Basically, Strunk says, Solo Vino customers fall into two categories. The first and largest category includes people who know less than he and his employees do about wine, and who therefore use them as a free resource to help them out. (Much as people understand the difference between a talented auto mechanic and the neighborhood KwikLube, or the difference between a good doctor and the cough-syrup aisle.) The second category is the passionate collector, who we'll assume is about as likely to buy wine at the grocery store as she is to buy her jewelry at Target.

"What's more of a concern for us are the bigger stores like Sam's Club," says Strunk. "They have international buying power, so they can cut prices really low, and it's hard for the little guys in the city to compete with that." Of course, if a Sam's Club were to open in Midway--well, that has nothing to do with what we're talking about. That would require exactly zero change in current state laws.

So how is it that great wine shops survive out in the suburbs, where there actually are Sam's Clubs, and even Cub Foods liquor stores? (Hey, city kids, chew on this: Four Cub Foods in Minnesota have their own liquor stores right now, just like Byerly's.)

I talked to Pat Keeler, who runs a fantastic wine shop out in Long Lake called Lakeside. How does he view the competition? "You just have to deal with it," he sighs. "Sometimes you have to get naughty [with pricing], but mostly it's customer service. You can't compete with [big grocers] on beer, because they have maybe a 5.5, 7.5 percent markup on those, and if you compete with them on price you won't be in business very long. For the most part, people who shop there shop there, and we don't get a ton of crossover. I'm not too worried about grocery stores myself, but in the inner city there's going to be a lot of pain. It'll bury half the liquor stores in Minneapolis in three months. Definitely."  

Keeler also points out that the Cubs and Super Targets are trying to get in on a customer base that has been cultivated over the last seven decades by local liquor-license holders, and that there is no way in heck the various municipalities that run their own government-supporting liquor stores--the "munis"--are going to let grocery stores sell hooch.

More interestingly, Keeler told me a fact about running a local liquor store that I'd never known: specifically, what happens when you have to cut off your customers. Typically it happens with older customers, says Keeler. They'll be put on a medicine that alcohol interferes with, and a daughter calls up to tell him to stop making deliveries. Or, a customer loses his job and Smirnoff consumption subsequently jumps from a liter a week to one-and-a-half liters every other day, so Keeler pulls them aside to talk the next time they're in.

"You have to have a responsibility for what you're doing," says Keeler. "This isn't candy. It's nasty stuff sometimes. Most liquor stores are mom-and-pop shops. They're fairly responsible about what they serve and who they serve." In other words, don't expect Sam's Club to get your back if you've lost your job and aren't handling it well.

All things considered, though, Keeler figures grocery-store wine sales are coming. "It won't be many years away. One day, a lobbyist will get enough money and pump enough money into somebody's campaign, and that will be that. Unfortunately, that's the way things get done. Talk about the president and you have to talk about his war chest and how much money he has to go after people with. The media will hype it, because full-page ads make money both ways. Money talks, and for the rest of us, no matter how much we make our point of view known, eventually they'll win. Right now, the way I see it, it's a question of whether the almighty dollar is going to win out over common sense."


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