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The Gorilla in the Room – Costco vs. Everybody Else

Let’s talk about Costco.  Everybody knows Costco, the “big” of the “big box” stores.  Its nearest competitor is Sam’s Club, but Sam’s Club doesn’t compete in the area of wine.  Costco is the largest wine retailer in terms of bottles of wine sold per annum, but, surprisingly, it isn’t the largest as far as actual labels are concerned.

Let me explain.

I’ve been a member of Costco since 1987 when I still lived in Southern California and Costco was relatively new to the area. It took one visit and I was hooked. At the time, my three children were very young, and this was the best way I could find that could keep them clothed and fed and still keep a few $$$ in my wallet.

It wasn’t until they were much older and my interest in fine wine was piqued (thanks Wineaux Guy™!) that I started paying attention to wines in general.  Later, Costco started carrying wines, but like many people, I figured it was just a collection of the cheap and/or grocery store labels.  As I found out later, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Every wine club worth its salt has had a Costco wine tasting.  The Vegas Wineaux Wine Club certainly has, as well as the Tex & Fritz Wine Club.  Several, even. Everybody likes the rock-bottom prices that Costco offers, even if we’re tempted to turn up our (wine snobbish) noses at the very idea of shopping there.  Whether the tastings are blind or not, they’re always enjoyable, and often open us to some new experiences.  The best local Costco for wine is the Summerlin store at Charleston and the 215.

Anyway, we’ve also done shopping and tasting at Trader Joe’s and Total Wine, which are the other big gorillas on the scene.  Total Wines brags about its 8000 bottles availability, and Trader Joe’s has a lot of budget-friendly, tasty wines.  They are, for better or worse, very well known as the retailer of the infamous (notorious?) Two-Buck Chuck.  Of course, our local retailers are our absolute favorites: Khoury’s and Valley Cheese & Wine, for example.

A couple of months ago, a television special showcased Costco, and a segment focused on its wine department.  I learned some things about Costco wine that I didn’t think was possible.  The number of labels that it sells is about 200.  Total Wines boasts an 8,000 wine selection (I’m not sure if that’s bottles or labels, so don’t yell at me), and that’s less than the average wine store.  I keep forgetting to count the labels every time I get to the Costco Summerlin store, so I can’t officially confirm that statement. I’m figuring it’s probably a little more than that and is a “rolling” 200+. Costco – as a wine merchant – sells about a billion dollars of wine a year, and is the largest importer of high-end, top-dollar wines.  Who knew.

The head wine buyer, Annette Alvarez-Peters (no kin to our own Charlie Peters of Grape Expectations), came up through the ranks twenty years ago to become one of the most powerful wine buyers in the world.  Ms. Alvarez-Peters caused a firestorm of indignation when, during the Costco special interview, she indicated that at the end of the day, “..it’s a beverage.”

Well, the wine world blew up and everyone has berated her to no end, stating that wine is special, it’s more than a beverage, her statement is offensive, blah blah blah.  Various blogs called her everything from “peasant” to “uneducated.”  There was plenty of hysterics saying that she thought wine was the same as toilet paper.

Really?

I noticed that after she said that wine is a beverage, she also added, “you either like it or you don’t.”

Did anybody notice that? Is that wrong? Or did I miss something?  Yes, to those of us who have loved wine as much as our own lives agree that it is more than a beverage; it’s special, wonderful, and personal.  But there are some wines that we really don’t like. Those wines – did somebody say “White Zin”? – we wouldn’t give the time of day.

So my hat’s off to Ms. Alvarez-Peters to bringing the rubber to the road.  Wine is a beverage. To some it’s just a beverage, and to others it is a magical elixir. I’m in the “magical elixir” camp, myself.  And no, I don’t agree with Ms. Alvarez-Peters on her opinion of the status of wine in our lives, although admittedly she may be correct when she’s talking about someone who may truly see wine as little more than a beverage to have with dinner.  In that case, she’s 100% correct.  I guess that one thing I like most about her attitude is that she doesn’t see it as a snobbish item, but as something everyone can enjoy. Even White Zin. Ew.

Kirkland, the Costco labeled wine, is not exactly made by Costco, but by many reputable – even stellar – wineries.  Total Wine, on the other hand, will purchase entire vintages of particular wineries to sell at its stores, and will leave the original label on the bottles, thereby crediting the winemaker.  Trader Joe’s does a little of both.  And our local retailers sell the labels that are familiar to us and that we can find in any wine store. For us, the customers, it’s win-win all the way around!

I know this is a little after the hubbub, but I figured it was the best time to address the “Is Wine Just a Beverage?” question.

My .02 cents’ worth.

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3 replies
  1. Mike Frankel
    Mike Frankel says:

    I don’t know if it is still possible, but a few years ago, because of Nevade law, you didn’t have to be a Costco member to buy wine. Once they charged me an extra 10% and sometimes they would assign a sales person to accompany me to the wine area [which was a pain waiting for them to find someone].

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