Wine Stores

What has happened to the local wine shop? It seems the current economy is reeking havoc on any business in its' path. And, even if the business doesn't go under, they have changed.

I live in a small mountain community in Southern California. Lake Arrowhead has often been referred to as the "Jewel of Southern California". We are only a short 30 minute drive from civilization, but sometimes, it feels like we are a world apart, particularly when it comes to buying wine, and even more so in winter. Just twelve months ago, we had two wine shops located in the Lake Arrowhead area, plus our local grocery stores. Today, those two wine shops have closed their doors, leaving us with grocery store availability. One of the local stores is a gourmet style market, and has an extensive wine selection (albeit quite pricey). The wine manager (Rob) knows his wines, and can make good recommendations, however, his inventory is limited by what his buyer decides to purchase. Here's the problem...I went there last week looking for a nice Meritage to share with some friends, Do you think I found anything? Nope.

Blue Jay Village
Now, my next choice for finding wine is at least 45 minutes away. As I drive down the mountain, and back into the city, I have a few choices. I can go to a liquor store (nope) or I can stop by BevMo, Costco, or the new Total Wine shop. I don't know what it is about BevMo, but I just can't seem to find what I'm looking for, or even find someone who really knows wine. Yes, they have recommendations from Wilfred Wong, but I guess I'm skeptical when their wine critic is hired by them to evaluate the wines they carry. Do you think he'd rate one of their wines as an awful wine? When it comes to Costco, I can find the occasional great buy, but you are really at the mercy of what is available at the time you happen to be there. Now, the new guy on the block is Total Wine. this place is huge, and if you are buying domestic wines, or beer, or hard alcohol, you'll love this place. I just find it hard to shop for imported wines. Yes, I'll find Bordeaux, and Rioja, but most of the time, I'm finding wines from odd importers. Over the years, I have found that certain importers are more reliable than others, as to the quality of their wines. I just don't find those wines at Total Wine.

So where do I buy my wines? Believe it or not, I drive one and half hours to Orange, or Santa Ana. But something has happened to my favorite stores, down there. One store is smaller than the other, and about a year ago, went through a transition. I can still walk in the door, and they know me by name. Tim, one of the managers, asks me what I'm looking for, and makes his recommendations (and a lot of times opens a bottle to taste). This last time in, I had my usual wish list of wines to purchase...all of them Australian. I really wanted to share the different regions of Australia at a wine tasting. I wanted a Margaret River Chardonnay. Nothing. Their selection was very limited. They only had one Semillon on the shelf. This store used to be my "go to" store, but it must be a sign of the times. None of the unusual varieties are on the shelf, and only limited regions are available.

My new "go to" store is in Orange. They have a huge selection of wines, their prices are very good, but when I walk in the door, no one knows me by name (and I buy $400 - $600 worth of wine with every visit). No one asks if they can help me. Even as a Sommelier, I occasionally have questions. Yes, I know my wine, and regions and have a vintage "cheat sheet", but if it is a producer I am unfamiliar with, I want some feedback. When I purchase wine, I ask if there might be better choices than what I have in the cart. This is how I "discover" new wineries.

It seems to me, that selection and customer service are disappearing. Is this the economy? Do retailers want to limit their inventory, and only carry the best selling Cabernet or Chardonnay? Is it a result of the 3-tier system we have, where distributors sell only certain brands, and that is what you get? Maybe I'm an unusual wine shopper. I like variety in the brands and the grapes. I like different regions, and I like to experiment. I like to learn, and to share...maybe I need to open a wine shop.

What are your thoughts?


  1. As a retailer I definitely understand your frustration. There is a long standing belief among decision makers that only big name brands will sell, because that is what has always sold. You have to remember that there are very few wine professionals in leadership positions, they are mostly sales professionals and want to flood the market with what they believe sells. the key is, as you mentioned, is to have wine pros on the ground, interacting with guests. One will always make more money from trust rather than brand name. Simply, I believe bad wine is like bad movies-if you stop buying them, they will stop making them. So avoid that "blockbuster" with the big star in it and go for the "indie" with the lesser known.

  2. Well put Brian. Your shop is lucky to have you as a Sommelier, and your customers are even luckier. Too bad Florida is so far for me to purchase wine!