I wrote this thing once, already. But then I realized something:
You already know all this stuff. You just sometimes forget, so I’ll shorten it considerably…and, believe me, this IS the short version.
If you patronize either of the big chain liquor operations – Total Wine & More or BevMo – you may very well be saving yourself a few bucks on your adult beverage purchases but you’re screwing your neighbors and sucking the vitality out of your own local economy. Now, this being America – still, against all odds and the best efforts of a TON of reactionary yahoos to turn it into Nazi Germany – you can shop any ol’ place you like. That is your right. Just like with freedom of speech, however, your right to say or do anything comes with the right of those around you to criticize your words or your choices and nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights does it say a word about getting to be oblivious and short-sighted with no comebacks. So, if you’re a loyal and devoted fan and patron of BM or TW&M and this offends you…
When the good people of the state of Washington voted – as they bloody well should have – to privatize liquor sales, one of the pitfalls of suddenly having the keys to the world’s liquor cabinet thrust into our sweaty little hands is that we invited in the involvement of not only our own home-grown menace, Costco, but out-of-state behemoths like BevMo, based in Concord, California, and Total Wine & More, based in Potomac, Maryland. BevMo, in fact, opened a small and laughably-inadequate store one block from my house, while TW&M took a defunct GI Joe’s Superstore location 1/2 mile away, both figuring, probably correctly, that Bellevue, Washington, would contain enough clueless, uber-affluent yuppies who wouldn’t give two poots about supporting local businesses to make both happily profitable. BevMo, of course, since they opted to wedge themselves into a space that wouldn’t accommodate the average Starbucks, has far fewer customers but, as their prices are noticeably higher than even our independent local liquor stores, they probably do okay. Total Wine is blowing it out. I go in there and walk around and, as I’m not challenged by doing simple addition in my head, I see folks with shopping carts that contain – with NO exaggeration – well over $750 worth of assorted booze, happily tooling around in search of more.
Meanwhile, less than a half mile away, Pete’s Eastside – for a couple of decades, one of Washington’s true heroes in the battle to keep wine and beer prices reasonable – is taking it in the shorts daily as more and more Eastsiders wander off to Total Wine to do their wine, beer, and liquor shopping all in one place! I mean, Jesus, you can’t expect a person to drive one or two miles(!) to get their Bud and Jack when they’re within fifty feet of each other in store that looks exactly like the image I have in my head of what my life is supposed to be like! Not shopping at Total Wine would just be, like, SO inconvenient!
But here’s the catch: when you spend money at Total Wine and/or Bevmo, you’re siphoning that money out of our local economy. It’s just a fact. The profits, which for a locally-owned shop would be used for expenses and then go into the bank account of owners who keep them HERE – for groceries, doctors, cars, utility bills, entertainment, in short, all the Stuff of Life – get sent to Concord, California, and Potomac, Maryland. Ditto for all those beer taps at our locally-financed sports stadiums and concert halls and airports and other big venues; all those beer taps which are, about 80%+ of the time, taken up with Budweiser and Stella and Coors and Pabst and Blue Moon and other mass-producer dishwater. The Bud Bux go to Belgium and Brazil. (No, Budweiser is NOT an American company, anymore). The Blue Moon/Coors Cash goes to England. Stella goes to Belgium. Pabst goes to Illinois. Meanwhile, try finding more than one or two Washington beers being poured at a sports stadium, with the sole exception of SafeCo Field. Go ahead.
We have well over 200 working breweries in this state, now. We have 800 wineries. We have maybe 75 licensed distilleries. What we have, in short, is the makings of a potent Washington economy in adult beverages. But if you’re thinking that “Drink Local” thing ONLY applies to drinking our home-grown producers, think again. Total Wine actively sells the convenient little fantasy that their stores mean more jobs and more money and more dollars flowing through our local economies. But that much-trumpeted revenue doesn’t account for what’s lost in small local businesses that their very presence here drives into bankruptcy. Right now, as I write this, local Seattle-businesses like Malt & Vine, Super Deli Mart, Beer Junction, 99 Bottles, Full Throttle Bottles, Seattle Wine Company, Pike & Western Wine Shop, Portalis, McCarthy & Schiering, Pete’s Eastlake, Pete’s Eastside, and fifty or so more are being clubbed like baby harp seals by the omnipresent advertising buys, loss-leader specials, and sheer market mismatch of their limited budgets vs. the deliberate and callous hammer that’s being wielded by these giant corporations whose obvious goal is to drive any and all competition out of business.
It was bad enough when just CostCo was the 400 Pound Gorilla in wine sales. Many small retailers were driven out of their towns because of what has always been a laughably under-realized wine department, there in your local warehouse store. At most, CostCo will have around 200 to 250 different wines in stock. Any small, independent wine shop will have about 1,000. Fewer Choices. CostCo fans have always crowed about the huge savings possible there. But I did this myself, many times: I took the latest list of CostCo prices and routinely beat better than 70% of them by simply reading ads for Pete’s or getting the Esquin newsletter or by visiting any one of a dozen local shops and checking the sales. No better prices. Just exactly what is it that makes CostCo “better”? The fact that, for those of us living in Washington, CostCo is a local company? CostCo has clearly outgrown the claim of being a “Seattle company”. They may still be based here but they also work, just like Total Wine and BevMo, to trounce local competition, the clearest example of which is their authorship of Washington’s new law privatizing liquor sales to require a liquor vendor to have a facility larger than 10,000 square feet…which keeps the liquor sales wqith larger retailers like…CostCo.
Appearances can be deceiving, folks. If you think CostCo is you best wine value, you simply haven’t done your homework.
Even if just the fact of absentee ownership were not a bad thing, what’s maybe even worse is that we’ve been gulled so completely by TW’s and BM’s uber-funded media blitzes. We genuinely think, now, that Total Wine is staffed by trained wine/beer/booze experts, as their ads always claim. Here are just a few of the 50+ examples of bad/wrong/incomplete information that I have personally witnessed in my MANY visits to Total Wine; actual statements made by TW’s staffers, either to me, directly, or within earshot:
1. Sangiovese is not Chianti: TW wine “expert” telling me and four middle-aged ladies, at their tasting bar, that Chianti is a grape and Sangiovese is a grape made in “other parts” of Italy. Sangiovese is, by tradition and Italian law, normally as much as NINETY PERCENT of any Chianti. And the Chianti grape? There is NO varietal, anywhere, named Chianti. Which ties in with…
2. Montepulciano is made from Sangiovese: There is a wine called “Vin Nobile de Montepulciano”, named for its city of orgin, Montepulciano, part of the same province, Tuscany, that’s home to all Chianti. Vin Nobile, as with almost all Tuscan wines, is predominantly Sangiovese. The Montepulciano which was being poured and talked about was from Maurizio Marchetti, a friend of mine who makes his Montepulciano normale and “Villa Bonomi” Reserve Montepulciano in the province of Marche…from the grape, Montepulciano, which is in no way related to Sangiovese.
3. Tempranillo is best made as a rosé wine: According to my intrepid wine pourer, Tempranillo makes tough and leathery wines, is a minor grape in its native Spain, and is better used for rosé. I was so astounded by this that I actually choked on the sip of the wine he just poured me. In fact, Tempranillo is to Spain very much what Cabernet is to the US: the main red grape in prestige and consumption. Nearly all of the hundreds of immortal Spanish wines contain either some or all Tempranillo. This was clearly a kid who tasted one or two bad bottle of Tempranillo and formed a snap judgment…and this “Total Wine Expert” has now infected God Knows how many casual wine drinkers with information that doesn’t contain a grain of truth.
4. A Belgian Quad means the beer is fermented four times: In reality, a Quad is fermented once, just as with any other beer. Batches of different ages are often blended to get a broader palate of flavors and textures but that would be the only possible misunderstanding point, and each of the batches is fermented once, too.
5. Malbec is a native Argentinian grape: I can sorta understand someone making this mistake. Malbec, which originated in the general region of Bordeaux and its Southern neighbor, Cahors, in France, was used almost exclusively in Bordeaux as an occasional blending grape and only varietally bottled in Cahors. The original cuttings of Malbec went to Argentina with a French immigrant and it quickly became obvious that the grape grew beautifully there. Today, the world knows Malbec as Argentina’s main grape. Confusion is understandable but, if the word “expert” that TW throws around so liberally is to mean anything, saying Malbec is a grape native to Argentina is kinda…ridiculous. Experts know stuff. That’s why they’re experts.
6. Nobody in the whole store at TW or BM knew what a Brachetto d’Acqui or Fior d’Arancio is: These two flamboyant and expressive bubbly wines from the North of Italy have gained considerable popularity in the US, in recent years. I went to my local Total Wine and my nearby BevMo, asking for either. In neither shop had the staff ever heard of either wine. In Total Wine, the steward couldn’t even find them in their computer. As it turned out, I found one on the bottom shelf of their Sparkling Wine section, with a fine coating of dust on it; unsurprising, since obviously nobody had ever tried selling it. Are they somewhat obscure wine styles? You betcha. But, AGAIN, if “expert” is to mean anything, the base of knowledge of the person upon whom you’re hanging that signage should be broad and comprehensive. I am, by most standards, a wine expert. Paul Gregutt is a wine expert. Ran Seely and Sean Sullivan and James Molesworth and David Schildknecht and (cue celestial choir) Robert Parker can all reasonably be called wine experts. I GUARANTEE that any one of those folks will know, in some detail, facts about Brachetto d’ Acqui, Fior d’Arancio, and also the six other grapes that I’ve asked for at BM and TW, only to be greeted with stunned incomprehension: Ruche, Teroldego, Tannat, Negroamaro, Muscat d’Alexandria, and Mencia.
7. Their beer specialist was flummoxed by the whole concept of Biere de Garde, a French country ale that is a tad obscure but was sitting right on those very Total Wine shelves, clearly marked. Asked to spell it, I had to repeat it SIX times before the poor SOB was even able to type it into his computer terminal correctly. They had three on the shelves. Oy vey.
8. Myriad examples of beers explained inaccurately: Ninkasi “Sleigh’r” Chistmas Ale was described by a clerk as a Red Ale. Actually, it’s an over-amped German-style Double Alt ale. It says so, right on the bottle…One beer steward described No-Li Brewing in Spokane as “a rather obscure new brewery that sells almost exclusively in Spokane”. This is the same “obscure brewery” which recently underwent a huge expansion because they couldn’t keep up with demand, which has won multiple awards at GABF and WBC and the Washington Beer Awards, and is now distributed to (approximately) 18 states…and was founded in 1993. Not that new, NOT that “obscure”…Most egregious of all was the wine clerk who was talking to a middle-aged couple, saying, “In general, Washington wine is far less flavorful and complex than California wine, has less body, and shows less winemaking skill than what you get from a Napa or Sonoma winery.” There is so much objectionable about this that I don’t even know where to start. Washington wine, “in general”, is every bit as flavorful, is virtually identical in body to a Sonoma bottle of the same composition, and is quite often more complex than their CA counterparts. These are fairly easy facts to verify. Just taste the number of wines from both places that you should taste if you are to be considered a wine “expert”. I took a blood oath, in my visits to Total Wine, that I would not ever correct anything I heard. This last one had me literally grinding my teeth in the effort to keep my mouth shut.
I could go on for several pages about this stuff and I will admit that I have, when all else failed, bought stuff at Total Wine. There is, I think, a very legitimate purpose for a superstore concept like TW…which I’ll explain in a moment.
I don’t shop at BevMo at all and don’t even go there to find instances of ineptitude. BevMo is so obviously lame and silly that it’s just too easy to make fun of them. Plus…I did go there one time, shortly after they first opened, and make a hurry-up purchase of a bottle of Kahlua, when we had guests in. It’s ONE BLOCK from my house and there wasn’t time to brave Bellevue traffic to get to anywhere that sells the stuff at any sort of sane price. When I went to the check-out, my quick stop turned book-length, when the clerk demanded, as a condition of the sale, that they be allowed to scan my driver’s license. I was momentarily shocked and then asked why. I got the standard low-level-staffer response: “It’s just company policy.” I replied that, to my knowledge, only law enforcement, the DMV, and the courts had any right to scan my license’s bar code. He shrugged and said, “Well, if, you don’t want the Kahlua, we’ll put it back for you.”
The next day, I called the DMV and asked one of the information-line people in Olympia if this practice was okay with the state. She replied that the information in the scan was basically what’s on the front and that nobody but those I mentioned were entitled to use it. Later, I talked with a lady in BevMo’s Consumer Relations Department who assured me that the scan was solely used to verify that the age on the front agrees with the age in the scan. The problem is, it’s simply not possible to get ONLY the age when you scan. A clerk taking a quick glance at my Date Of Birth isn’t going to record and store – and, quite possibly, USE – all that information that BevMo has ZERO right to demand. I asked for a statement via email from BevMo and told her that I would write this accordingly if I could see their policy in writing. I also said that I really hoped that I didn’t EVER receive one piece of mail from BevMo or the jig would be up on the “just making sure the ages agree” thing. She assured me that she’d send me the statement, ASAP. That was six months ago…
BevMo has still never sent that statement.
What’s even worse, to me, is that not all BevMo stores seem to follow this policy. I stopped at the one next to Sears at Overlake, in Bellevue, and bought a bottle of beer to see what would happen. Item rung up, paid for, bagged, and out the door. No scan. No disclaimer about “company policy”. Either a policy exists for the whole chain or there’s no legitimacy in claiming “company policy” at all.
And Total Wine? Worst of all, as far as I’m concerned, is their attitude that, now that they’re here, they’re automatically Top Dog. One of my distributor reps brought his sales manager to my office, one day, and the conversation turned to Total Wine. He discussed a conversation he had with their regional manager in which the guy wanted to know about getting sufficient quantities of hot items.
“We’ll make sure you get a fair share,” the sales manager told him.
“Well,” the TW big shot replied, “I’m afraid that won’t do. We will expect to get quite a bit more than our ‘fair share’. We can either buy from you or not. Your choice.”
In short, the message was clear: “Either accept the idea of screwing over all of your well-established accounts in order to cater to us or we’ll just cut you off.”
During the same conversation, the TW hot dog bragged about sending people into CostCo and recording prices so that Total Wine could set their under CostCo’s and, presumably, everybody else’s. (Evidently, TW is under the same erroneous impression that CostCo automatically beats all prices in their regions.)
The bottom line is that mega-stores like Total Wine & More, BevMo, CostCo, the old Peaches Records chain, Best Buy, and every other mega-retailer can only function if they remove major portions of their competition. This is true here in Seattle, in Richmond, VA, in Sacramento, in Jacksonville, in Cambridge, in DC, and in every other market in which they appear. They enter a new territory and count on the simple greed of locals who see ONE DOLLAR LESS on that bottle of wine or fifty cents off that bomber of Dogfish to insure that we all instantly and perpetually sweep aside any such notions as local pride, consumer loyalty, or even our own collective best interests so that we can all save a few $$$…while directly and deliberately throwing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of our neighbors out of work or into bankruptcy court.
All that said, I’m not even saying that you should never shop Total Wine OR BevMo. As I said above, mega-stores have a legitimate role in any market. Here it is:
Keep email addresses of locally-owned shops that sell beverages. Bookmark their websites or Facebook pages. Watch for specials. Drop in now and again. If they have it in stock and it is within, say, a dollar of what you’d pay at TW/BM/CostCo…BUY IT THERE. What you’ve done is not toss away a buck. You’ve invested in your own local economy. You’ve pumped some vitality back into your own neighborhood. If a sale price at TW or BM beats the local’s price all to heck, go get it from the mega-store. If it’s close, BUY LOCAL, damnit! If you can’t find the beer or wine you want at a local shop, get it at TW or BM. IF the local stores want to stay in business, they MUST adapt to the changing reality of the marketplace. If their prices can come down a tad, they’ll do that or fold. If their selection forces shoppers into Total Wine, they probably ought to work on that selection. There is some element of personal responsibility on the part of local merchants, too. Buying Local CANNOT just be about charity to locals or the desire to thumb our noses at out-of-towners.
USE the mega-stores, instead of being used BY the mega-stores. Use them as a last resort. I see those carts rolling around with $750 to $1,000 worth of stuff in them and what I think is – and this is in NO way an exaggeration – that one cart COULD be the difference between a locally-owned shop staying in business or shutting the doors for good. The margin between success and failure is sometimes just that slim. A day’s receipts for Total Wine would sometimes be the entire weeks take at a local shop.
I URGE you to Say Something to restaurants that don’t offer a reasonable number of locally-produced beers, wines, and spirits. Any restaurant that boasts about “locovorism” and then offers a French or California-heavy wine list (unless you’;re reading this in California) is a big, fat, stinking PHONY. Any public facility that offers MOSTLY BudMillerCoorsPabst as their beer choices deserves to answer direct or even RUDE questions about it, daily. Brewing, distilling, and winemaking are booming, in every part of this country. Your local businesses should be supporting your local producers – PERIOD. And you should be supporting your own economy – PERIOD.
Am I suggesting that you ONLY buy locally-made products, exclusively. Hell, NO. We have, here in the Northwest, a rampaging streak of Homerism that is both our strength and our painful shortcoming. I can’t even count the number of times I watched people walk right past fabulous bottles of Cab, Merlot, or Chardonnay from Australia or Argentina or Spain or South Africa, and grab a deadly-dull bottle of some Washington wine just because “I only drink Washington.” How will local winemakers and brewers have any incentive to get better if they are always told how great everything they do is? But TRY everything from home. I promise you that you will find wines, beers, and vodkas you like every bit as much as your French, California, or Kentucky faves. And buy them from your neighbor down the street, PLEASE. They will taste even sweeter with the knowledge that you’re taking care of your own.
If you care about the economic vitality of your city, state, or region and you know someone who is habitually shopping at Total Wine or BevMo or even CostCo, apply a LOT of friendly peer group pressure. Explain to that person that it’s not in the best interests of your own pocketbook, your own neighborhood to take any part in wiping out small businesses and bleed revenues out of your state’s coffers. If that fails, tell them – because it’s absolutely freakin’ TRUE – that shopping at soulless mega-stores, where you will never be anything more than a number on a balance sheet is simply NOT COOL – NOT friendly, NOT supportive of your friends and neighbors, NOT resourceful, NOT smart. It’s lazy, unimaginative, callous CRAP. Ask yourself this: what if the mega-retailers get to their eventual goal of eliminating ALL competition? What if the average American becomes so hopeless about the idea of even thinking of starting a small business that dares to compete with a CostCo or Total Wine that they just abandon the dream before it even blooms? I’ll tell you what, Bubba – It’s the END of the American economy…It’s the start of that Orwellian future of lines around the block, waiting to get into the local MegaWal-CostCoBevMart to get your monthly chance to buy the necessities of life. It’s the end of choice, and – because even huge stores don’t stock everything, it’s the literal end of thousands of wineries, breweries, and distilleries…
If you pass up your local beer, wine or liquor shop for a couple of bucks at BevMo, you’ve said “I don’t care about this country’s economic well-being, anymore“…so don’t bitch and whine as it slowly slides into ruin. After all, YOU started it.
Wow, GREAT article! You said everything Tiffany and I have been saying for 2 years. Now if we can only (finally) convince our customers to think the same way! Allison Helfen, The Wine Alley