This is a golden age for the wine consumer. There have never been so many high quality selections from every corner of the globe. Wine is getting better and more consistent. But, just like the rest of the world, the wine market is wrought with over-consolidation. The big guys keep getting bigger, and the small guys keep losing distribution. The question that everyone keeps forgetting to ask is: Is this ultimately good for the consumer?
Let’s explore the way a grocery chain or retail chain makes wine purchase decisions. Most wine that is purchased in this country is purchased in either a grocery store or drug store. Often, a central buyer who is experienced and educated is at the helm (so far, so good), he or she decides what prices are in demand, what the shelf space is, and what the demographic studies tell him or her. Then, he or she inquires about availability of product. In order for a wine to make it into every store in a chain, it must be mass-produced, and this is the exact moment where things get sticky. If a wine is not made in a large enough quantity, it is rarely considered, because there are too many wineries that can ensure nationwide stock and availability.
Now let’s look at the winery’s side of the equation. The winery can decide to make the best wine possible, but production goes down, as does cases available for sale. Lower yields translate to higher quality wine grapes. Or they can decide to make more wine, and see if it competes favorably with other wines at a certain price point. The big companies run on such small margins, that the second scenario doesn’t favor the small or medium sized guy. If none of these options seem like the way to go, they can sell their fruit or juice, or even wine, on the open market to big companies, unfortunately, it is reduced to a liquidated asset.
The big producers constantly sacrifice quality for quantity. This is not because they are evil, or malicious. They are doing the best they can, but at the prices that consumers are paying for grocery store wines, consumers are demanding this quality, or lack thereof. These wines tend to be mediocre for the same reasons everyone wants school class sizes to remain small (trust me). When the teacher(grower)/ Student (grape) ratio is too high, the teacher has a difficult time controlling what is absorbed. Rather than teaching (growing high quality grapes) the teacher is too focused on damage control, you don’t want the students to rot, er grapes, er, you get the idea. The wine produced is always the result of the average quality of grapes. The larger the crop, the more difficult it is to keep the quality high.
Finally, the big producers have marketing and advertising dollars to further entrench themselves in the marketplace. Small guys can’t do this.
OK, so what do you do? Well, first, the only time you should ever, and I mean ever buy wine in a grocery store, is if the person who makes the wine buying decisions for that store is employed at that store. In Toledo, that means, oh, about a half dozen stores (you should be able to figure out who this is). Or, you can buy your wines in a wine shop. These aforementioned stores offer something that the big chains can’t- high quality small producers. They are able to stock whatever they like, with quality always being the most important factor. These stores rely on consumers that put quality ahead of convenience. Just remember, if a store doesn’t have someone available to answer your wine questions, you need to go somewhere that does. There’s too much great wine out there to settle for mediocrity!