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Thursday throwaway: Drink while you shop, and cookie-cutter Napa Valley Cab



It hasn’t come to my local Whole Foods yet, but it looks like it’s on the way: “Sip ‘n Shop.” According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, that’s where “Some high-end supermarkets are turning into neighborhood watering holes. Many have set aside space for wine bars…Some stores encourage shoppers to ‘sip ‘n shop,’ drinking while pushing a shopping cart for a more relaxed shopping experience.”

I had mixed reactions when I read the article. On the one hand it’s really cool and very European to be able to have a nice glass of wine while you’re shopping. On the other hand it’s clear why some of these high-end supermarkets are doing it: a “more relaxed” shopper is a shopper who will be more relaxed about spending more money. I think it’s also a little concerning that if this tendency spreads, we’ll have more cars on the road driven by people who are a little tipsy.

Still, on balance, how civilized it is, being able to shop leisurely while sipping something. When you think about it, we’ve historically compartmentalized the different culinary parts of ourselves: we eat food and drink wine at restaurants and bars, while we buy food and wine at retail outlets. Who says you can’t blur the lines and combine the two?

* * *

Had lunch yesterday with an old friend who’s sort of a representative for small wineries. He hooks them up with distributors, who then resell to their on- and off-premise clients. My friend was telling me about one Napa Valley winery he represents that makes quite a good mountain-grown Cabernet that retails for $80. As soon as he began telling me this, I thought, “Uh oh.” That’s because there’s about a gazillion Napa Valley Cabs in that price range that are quite good, meaning that if I were scoring them, I’d give them at least 90 points.

It is as easy as falling off a log to make a 90-point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon these days, which is why there are so many of them. And that’s the problem: the market for these types of wines is limited, and yet supply is constantly expanding, as more and more people with a little money come in and buy themselves a lifestyle.

My friend was telling me he’s trying to think up innovative ways to interest buyers in this Cab, but honestly, it’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock uphill. There are a lot of cookie-cutter Napa Cabs out there, and the fact that none of these newer ones has a particularly interesting story doesn’t make selling them any easier. I mean, what is the tableside conversation between a somm and the customer? “This winery is owned by a [fill-in-the blank, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, mortgage king, neurosurgeon, engineer, Hollywood mogul, professional athlete]. It was made by [fill-in-the-blank, famous consulting winemaker],” blah blah blah, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. When I used to taste these wines for Wine Enthusiast, pretty much on an everyday basis, I was able to appreciate them for their beauty and richness, the sheer sense of drama they convey. They can be gorgeous. But after a while there were so many of them that I started wondering, “Where the heck do all these people sell all these wines?” I figured that a lot of the owners were so rich, they didn’t care if they sold anything, because they could afford to keep the winery going for years, and besides, it gave them immense bragging rights to their friends to be able to say that they got 91 points from Enthusiast, or 90 points from Spectator, or 92 points from Advocate, or 93 points from Galloni, whatever. So, like I said, as soon as my friend gave me the bare outlines of his Napa client, I smelled trouble. In so many respects, Napa Valley has become a vanity playground for outsiders who want to be able to own a Cabernet winery. They all claim to be unique but they’re not, not by a long shot. I don’t envy my friend his job. And, hey, I’m not talking about the really truly unique Napa Cabs that are out there, the 95-pointers and above. Maybe this just indicates that Napa has reached a certain level of maturity, like Bordeaux. Yet I still wonder who’s buying all these Cabs, $80 and above, into the triple digits.

  1. The Whole Foods here in Portland (Maine) recently opened up a restaurant/beer/wine bar. However, due to Maine’s draconian alcohol laws, I have my doubts that you can take your glass of wine with you as you shop. And while in many ways the alcohol laws in France are pretty liberal (but not for advertising), I’ve shopped in dozens of French grocery stores over the years, big and small, upscale and [very] downscale, but I don’t recall ever seeing any shoppers drinking wine while shopping.
    Oh, and by the way, I thought the Napa Cab part was great.

  2. Aside from the fact that FMA has the Jackson power behind it, what makes the FMA story more interesting than the small winery story of estate grown Cab in one of the best Cab patches in the world?

    Just sayin’.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    There are some Whole Foods stores in Los Angeles that have dedicated wine bars, but alcoholic beverage consumption has to remain within its confines due to the ABC license. So no roaming the sales floor with a glass of wine or beer in hand.

    And then there is this consideration: underage drinking.

    What is to prevent an accommodating adult from surreptitiously giving a minor that glass of wine or beer on the sales floor, away from the scrutiny of the wine bar personnel? (That’s a fast way to lose your ABC license.)

    As for Steve’s question “Where the heck do all these people sell all these [bragging rights, expensive] wines?,” I am reminded of this quote in a Los Angeles Times wine article:

    “Despite the [downward demand] shift in the [higher priced California Cabernet] market, some producers are defiant. ‘I’m not dropping my price,’ says Ron Wornick, owner of Seven Stones Winery in St. Helena, ‘and you can put that in writing.’ That price is $175 a bottle, to which Wornick feels entitled, comparing his wines to other luxury goods, like fine watches and diamonds. ‘A hard-to-find, precious, high-end product, whether it’s from Ferrari or from a tiny vineyard in Napa, is still fine and precious,’ he says.”

    (Citation: Comiskey, Patrick. “Dark days for Cult Cabs.” Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2010, “Food” section, page unknown. Print edition.)

    A quick review on Wine Searcher reveals there is some price discounting going on — and multiple vintages still in the retail market (with the 2013 vintage yet to be released):

  4. We frequently go to the wine bar attached to whole foods (actually we were there last night!). We had a flight of shafer 1.5 cab, anderson conn cab, barnett cab, and twentyfour cab for 24 bucks. That would be a 40+ dollar flight at any other wine bar. Then we grab some groceries and a to-go dinner from the food bar. Ya it’s not a classy date night, but it’s easy on the wallet and you get fresh food and good wine all at one place. Haven’t seen anyone drink while shopping yet.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    I visited the downtown Los Angeles Whole Foods wine bar the night it opened.

    One of the “rare” wines for sampling by the 2-ounce pour was a single vineyard Diamond Creek Cabernet (2010 or 2011 vintage). The open bottle is stored under CO2. (Can’t vouch for the storage temperature.)

    The wine bar charged $40.00 for that 2-ounce pour.

    With twenty-four usable ounces in a bottle of wine (“assume” one ounce spillage), that translates into twelve 2-ounce pours.

    At $40 a pour, those twelve pours project to $480.00 in sales revenue.

    By contrast, purchasing the entire bottle off the wine department’s shelf will set you back $199.99.

    As they say: “Do the math.”

    (No, you cannot buy a bottle in the wine department and drink it in the wine bar. They are not set up to offer corkage.)

  6. Another $80 retail Napa Cabernet? So it might wholesale for $42, assuming middle man takes 20%, the winery owner might break even on the deal if they don’t have a consultant, assuming an $8000/ton cost. If they do have a consultant, there is no way they are making money producing that wine, unless they sell only to wine club members, then they are making money.

    It’s not a living, producing an $80 Cabernet with no real hopes of distribution; it is a classic car hobby project where the car is never driven or buying a super-duper boat on Lake Berryessa that you take out once a year for 4th of July, or having a beach house you don’t rent out and stay in one-month a year. It’s something to say that you have.

    Tack it up to a hobby Steve, nothing more. We’ve got it in Dry Creek Valley too, it’s not exclusive to Napa.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    (I had forgotten about this quote. Let me belatedly proffer it now.)

    If a winery is a “bragging rights” vanity venture with someone’s family name as the brand, then the founder-owner can tolerate running an operating loss (funded from his day job or investments or inheritance).

    But not indefinitely. Ultimately the “burn rate” catches up with him.

    Charles Foster Kane:

    “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this [newspaper] place in… 60 years.”

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