01/15/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Steer Away From Big-Box Wine


It's a lively Friday night and you've been nominated as wine procurer and house sommelier. It's a very big deal: a dinner party at your boss's house and she has a penchant for Italian wine. The excitement is rising as fast as your hunger and you need to act quickly. The community's hip wine shop is across town; the big-box everything store is across the freeway. It's an easy choice, right?

Don't do it. Do not cross the freeway and grab wine where you buy your sponges and contact cleaner. Rethink this trip you're about to take; purchasing wine the way you do soda and Greek yogurt, based on stacks, on rebates, and by what's in the weekly ad. There's a huge world of wine out there, and you're ready to pull away from the confining chains of big-box retailers.

Sure there are times - making sangria, cooking, or camping - when most anything quick, red, and convenient will do. The shop across town has wines for those times, too, along side the better bottles. Shop big-box wine departments much as you do when buying coffee out of the bins; only in a pinch. Here's why.

Quality and Selection: While it's easy and tempting to one-stop shop at big box and buying club barns, these sources feature narrow offerings of generally ubiquitous, uninspiring brands. You're better off sticking to what big box does best: magnum-sized packs of tunafish and gallon jugs of olive oil. As you'll discover, offering everything under one roof usually correlates with a marginal wine department.

Big-box grocery chains come with the same drawbacks. There may be more selections: fifty Chardonnays, fifty Cabernets, and five to twenty five each of other common varietals. A nod to imports, a smattering of port, a long-in-the-tooth sake. You know the look. Grocers may even sport a separate beverage wing. Occasionally, managers will have influence on what's stocked. But most grocery wine selections are a result of corporate decisions. So it's a good bet the person in charge is compelled to sell stacks of varietals foisted upon the department by outside forces. The bottom line: more selections without more direction. Is this where you want to learn about wine?

There are always exceptions; stand-alone neighborhood or small regional grocers can feature surprising, dynamic selections and staff up to the task. Exceptional chain beverage shops and warehouses do exist; they're just not in every metro area.

Dollar for dollar, there's better quality at small retailers where the mantra is thoughtful selections, at all price levels.

Help in Making a Choice - You're On Your Own: Maybe you're the type who doesn't need wine help. In the event you do, it's rare to find a dedicated wine person at big-box stores. The only sure help: the cashier, and this is by design. Purchasing deep and limiting staff usually necessitates recognizable brands. The goal: products which sell themselves as no one is there to do it.

Sure, someone may to point you to the right sector; "Wine is in D19 just past motor oil." Once there, be ready to figure it out on your own, decoding the tags below bottles as guidelines. The stockers may be charming but are likely more expert at building displays than they are recommending bottles.

Doing the research, finding the bottles on your own, and taking chances can reward an array of experiences and beautiful wine. But it's a potentially expensive stab in the dark. There are times for chance, and nights when help is crucial in selecting the best Brunello. Develop a relationship at a wine shop in your area so it's there when you need it. You'll quickly become fond of the benefits; not the least of which is the clerk who listens well and who steers you to great bottles with confidence.

Same-Brand Perpetuation: Do some detective work next time shopping. Note the brands. Observe the layout. See anything familiar? In the cluster of grocery chains, big-box retailers, and buying clubs, observe what is known in the beverage trade as the set. A set is the combination of beverage selections and shelf layout specifically mapped out in the store. It's planned and carried out by wholesalers and store managers. Each bottle has a place; each store has the same design. Sets tend to favor brands our parents knew, wines which had greater relevancy years ago and have long been surpassed in value and quality by contemporary options. Brands in these sets are often owned by conglomerates, bolstered by heavy marketing money, and are pushed hard into in big-box venues, elbowing out more interesting upstarts.

Of course, not all mass-distributed wine is undesirable; not all limited-production, tiny-cuvee estate juice is worth a sniff. But the majority of broad market wines are anchored on shelves because of well-established placements and brand recognition, not because the wines have some sort of stand-alone dynamism. Big-box retail sustains the old brands by design, and the underwhelming selections repeat. You and your wine budget shouldn't merely settle; take the time to shop around, and then take a stand. Support smart choices at smart shops.