Can you name the Washington area's largest wine retailer? Calvert Woodley? Or perhaps MacArthur Beverages? Since each sells an estimated $5 million worth of wine annually, either would be an excellent guess. But guesses are one thing, facts another. The correct answer is Giant Food Inc.
With estimated annual wine sales of about $30 million, Giant outsells all of Washington's largest stores, even though it sells not a single drop of alcoholic beverages in the District. Not that it might not want to. But the District of Columbia forbids licensees to sell from more than one location, which Giant surely does. Giant has achieved its number one position despite being barred from the District, which has the highest per capita sales of wine and liquor in the nation.
But behind those per capita sales figures lurks the key to Giant's success. Most wine buyers live not in the city of Washington, but in its suburbs. For decades, the regular, and in some cases daily, shopping sojourn to Washington was a fixture of suburban wine lovers' lives. Lured by the lower prices and greater selection permitted by the District's relatively laissez-faire approach to wine and liquor price competition, suburban residents created a cottage industry of D.C. liquor retailers catering to D.C. nonresidents and residents alike. Despite the many changes in wine retailing through the years, among D.C. retailers it has remained gospel that the best locations are on the outbound side of heavily trafficked arteries leading to the suburbs.
But if the picture hasn't really changed, it has certainly shifted somewhat, particularly in Northern Virginia. Unlike Montgomery County, with its abominable de facto grant of a near monopoly to county-run stores, Virginia has chosen to loosen up its alcoholic beverage regulations with regard to wine and beer. The result has been a prolific flowering of wine retailing outlets in Virginia in the last decade.
Of these, Giant is by far the largest. Although arch rival Safeway, with total alcoholic beverage sales approaching $700 million is stronger nationally, Giant's 53 outlets in Virginia give it a significantly stronger local presence.
How, then, are suburban shoppers faring at their favorite supermarkets? Based on visits to close to a dozen stores over a recent two week period, two things are obvious. First, neither the price nor selection at Giant or Safeway is likely to create outbound gridlock on Washington's bridges -- D.C. residents are well served by their own stores. On the other hand, it is equally clear that many good wines are available at fair prices in the Northern Virginia supermarkets, without the hassle of a weekend drive or rush hour stop to replenish the wine cellar.
Here then is an overview of supermarket wine shopping, with recommendations at the two leading chains, Giant and Safeway: Giant Giant's 53 stores in Virginia (and three others in Maryland, which sell wine through a loophole in the state's licensing law) stock between 300 and 700 different wines, depending on location. The best selection will be found in the two McLean stores, Bailey's Crossroads, Burke and Herndon, all fairly upscale locations. Stores in less affluent areas pretty much stick to national brands in large formats, such as Gallo and Almaden. Top outlets add to that everything from Dom Perignon to first growth Bordeaux. At both large and small stores, an interesting specialty is an excellent and well-chosen selection of Virginia wines. While bigger Giants do stock many ultra-premium wines, Giant spokesmen admitted that the chain's principal focus and most of its sales are in under-$10 wines.
Recommended wines/best buys (not all wines are at all stores):
Reds -- Robert Sarrau 1989 Co~tes du Rhone ($6); Round Hill 1987 cabernet sauvignon ($8); Beringer 1987 zinfandel "North Coast" ($9); Round Hill 1987 zinfandel ($6); Montdomaine "Blush" ($6); Gundlach Bundschu 1986 "Rhinefarm" merlot ($10); Columbia Crest 1987 merlot ($10); Torres 1987 Sangre de Toro ($6); Torres 1985 Coronas ($6); Orlando 1987 cabernet sauvignon "Jacob's Creek" ($9).
Whites and sparkling -- Round Hill 1988 chardonnay ($8); Simi 1988 fume' blanc ($9); Prince Michel 1989 chardonnay ($9); Sebastiani 1987-88 chardonnay "Reserve" ($13); Gallo 1987 "Reserve" sauvignon blanc ($4.50); Cook's American champagne brut ($5.50); Sebastiani chardonnay "Country" ($10; 1.5 liter); Perrier-Joue t brut champagne ($24); Konocti 1988 fume' blanc ($7); Kendall Jackson 1989 chardonnay "Vintner's Reserve" ($12); Guenoc 1988 chardonnay "North Coast" ($10); Robert Sarrau 1988 Ma~con Villages ($9); Jordan 1987 chardonnay ($22 for a splurge). Safeway Safeway maintains a small core list of wines carried at all Virginia outlets, consisting largely of inexpensive, large-format jug wines. Store managers may order from an additional 2,000 wines on a supplemental list. Safeways also extensively stock Virginia wines.
Although area Safeways generally have smaller selections than similarly situated Giants, I generally found Safeways to be more fun to shop. This is because Safeway, unlike Giant, leaves the selection of "supplemental" wines to the discretion of the individual store managers, yielding more variety from store to store.
Not surprisingly, Safeway's best stores are in upscale outlets in Rosslyn and McLean. But I was pleasantly surprised at the selection at Nutley Street in Fairfax, for example, and other less tony locations. The key to shopping at Safeway is to avoid the aisle-end cap stands filled mostly with core-list wines. Head for the middle aisles of supplemental wines chosen by the managers. Don't hesitate to ask for a recommendation from the wine manager. Many are quite expert.
Recommended wines/best buys (not all wines are at all stores) listed in order of preference:
Reds -- George DuBoeuf Co~tes du Rhone ($6); Cha~teau Greyssac 1988 Bordeaux ($8); Columbia Crest 1987 merlot and 1986 cabernet sauvignon (both are $8.80); Hawk Crest 1987 cabernet sauvignon ($9.50); Sebastiani 1987 zinfandel "Sonoma County" ($7); Black Opal 1987 South Australia cabernet sauvignon ($9); Krug 1980 Vintage Select cabernet ($15); Cha~teau Meyney 1984 Bordeaux ($8- $11); Bel Arbors cabernet sauvignon "American" ($6.30).
Whites -- Fetzer 1988 sauvignon blanc ($7); Raymond 1988 chardonnay ($13.50); Black Opal 1988 chardonnay ($9); George DuBoeuf 1988 St. Veran ($9); Sebastiani Country Varietal chardonnay ($9.80 for 1.5 liters); Marque's de Ca'ceras Rioja Blanc ($6.50); Mountain View 1988 chardonnay ($6.80); Jordan 1987 chardonnay ($22 for a splurge). Other Outlets
Magruder's and Sutton Place Gourmet also have excellent selections. And don't overlook the smaller stores that have blossomed in recent years, all of which also sell some groceries. These include Cheese and Bottle, Shop Rite and, in Fort Washington, Silesia, as well as others.
Ben Giliberti is a freelance writer who writes regularly about wine.